Birds, Bees, Sun, Sand: Dad Faces the Facts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it came to teaching sex education to the kids, my dad followed the example set by most dads of his generation: He passed the job to Mom.

So one night, with Dad safely upstairs, my little brother and I--both in elementary school--found ourselves on the living room couch on either side of a very nervous mother.

Jimmy and I gave each other the eye. This was going to be majorly embarrassing, wasn't it?

She got right to it, describing the plumbing of a male and--for reasons I still can't figure out 30 years later--she decided to use a familiar playground term for one of the parts. Hearing our proper mother say that word--to go playground on us--sent us into hysterics. It didn't get any better when my brother, then 9, got the giggles every time she tried to start again. She kicked him out of the class.

I, more mature at age 11, managed to get a reprieve, which I'm not sure I wanted. Mom raced through the rest of the lesson, just ahead of my giggles.

"Any questions?" she asked.

"Just one," I replied. "How does the sperm get from the man to the woman?"

I told my facts-of-life story to a friend last year, and he let me in on a secret: There's a better way for dads to give our birds and bees talk. And for me at least, that has evolved into an annual trip to Hawaii.

My dad, who's gotten better with his father-son talks over the years, is very jealous.

The idea is this: Before a son hits his teenage years, his father needs to take him away on a boys-only trip. Just the two of them. For at least a weekend. A week is better. The destination isn't important (though I somehow convinced my wife that it had to be Hawaii). It's the getting-away part that matters.

Put yourself in your kid's Skechers for a moment. How great would it be if your dad centered a vacation entirely around you? It wouldn't matter if you went camping, skiing or spent the weekend in Barstow, you'd be in heaven.

Last August, I took my two oldest boys, Taylor, 12, and Tristan, 9, to Kauai for a week. I didn't mention to them anything about a talk.

If you haven't taken a father-son trip before, it's hard to explain how different it is from the standard family or even couple's vacation.

It starts with the packing. It took all of five minutes. We had no cosmetics bag, no hanging bags, no blow dryers, not even suitcases. We just brought three carry-on bags--one for each of us--filled with swim trunks, T-shirts, beach towels and fins.

Once on the island, we did stuff that a boys-only vacation inspires. We wore the same clothes for days. We ate Snickers bars and Hawaiian shaved ice for lunch.

We brought pizza back to our condo for dinner--and breakfast the next morning. We watched the Little League World Series games in the middle of the day, and ESPN the rest of the time. We learned to play cricket with some British chaps across the lawn from us. We sneaked into the pool of a luxury hotel and slid down the slides--until we got kicked out.

We hunted for giant frogs by flashlight at night. We wore too little sunscreen. We went to bed way past bedtime and slept in late.

And we went to the beach. Every day, nearly all day. Surfing, bodyboarding, bodysurfing and snorkeling. We were sunburned, salty, sandy for a week straight.

There were also a lot of things we didn't do. We didn't travel to tourist spots. We didn't make our beds. We didn't pick the towels off the floor. We didn't eat in fancy restaurants. We didn't make advance plans. And we rarely brushed our teeth.

We just hung out, and that softened up all of us to talk. A lot. About Big Things. I got the actual birds and bees speech out of the way quickly and easily, especially after Dad had a mai tai.

And we went on to other things. Stuff my wife and I have tried, with varying success, to drill into their brains in the few quiet moments between sports, school, homework, birthday parties and sleepovers. Things on the teenage horizon that would be coming at them as fast as pimples and proms.

Girlfriends: How to pick them, treat them and break up with them. (Which segued nicely into Wives: How to pick them, treat them and not break up with them.) Mistakes: What to do when you mess up (and you will mess up). The Golden Rule: Why it works. Religion: Why it matters. And so on.

The conversations took on a natural flow. The kids didn't even suspect they had been lectured to, in bits and pieces, for seven days and nights. They loved talking about adult things, asking lots of questions and giving some of their own theories on life. We all agreed on the return flight that we're going again this summer.

A father is never quite sure how he's doing. You know you're important--the way my dad raised me still influences nearly every thought I have. But between a child's birth and somewhere in adulthood, you find yourself in a kind of no-man's-land of paternal doubt.

Over the school year, I've looked for clues to see if the Hawaiian vacation has had any lasting impact on my boys, other than improving their surfing skills. They still fight with each other every day, never make their beds and have to be hounded into brushing their teeth.

But I've seen some signs: Taylor telling his coach he didn't think intentionally losing a game was right, even if it would give the team a better playoff position. And Tristan, after being invited to spend the night at a friend's, asking his mom, "It is OK, or do you need me at home?"

Small, but encouraging signs.

And never once, this entire year, has either of them asked, "How does the sperm get from the man to the woman?"

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