At first this may not sound like a big deal. Lots of boys (and men, dare I say) are perpetually entertained by this unpredictable and often entertaining body part. But in the post-Sandusky era we live in, a boy’s relationship to his penis has taken on new, even scary, importance.
Recently while at my son’s T-ball practice, another mom came up to me to say she witnessed Javier say this to the coach: “Hey, you touched my penis.”
Just five little words, but they had enough power to shock a mom off the baseball field, so she could be the first to tell me that it was certainly, unequivocally, absolutely not true. She vouched that the coach was nowhere near Jav’s penis but rather showing him how to hold a bat. But it was what she didn’t say that I heard most clearly: Your son is making dangerous accusations.
I immediately began to sweat. My mind was all over the place. I admit my first reaction was anger and annoyance at what I perceived as a blabbing mom. Call it the mama bear syndrome, but I couldn’t help launch into defense mode, instantly assuming that she was just being nosy, stirring the pot with things that are none of her business, and that my boy was totally innocent—and the victim of something, I just didn’t know what.
As often happens when I’m rattled, I went deep into thought—quick, rapid-fire thoughts that jumped all over the place like fleas on a stray dog. Why was this woman meddling in our business? Why did Jav say that, if in fact he really did? Have there been other run-ins with the coach that I don’t know about? Could she be wrong? Could she be right? Is it possible my kid is a victim of—gasp!—some form of abuse by the first real coach he’s ever had in his life?
On the short ride home, I tried as best I could to ask Jav what happened without seeming too nervous or eager to hear an answer. I wanted him to feel able to tell me the truth without fear I’d react in any negative way. He insisted nothing happened. Did you say something weird to the coach today, I asked. Nope, nothing. Did anything unusual happen at practice? No. Do you like the coach? Yep. He gave me nothing, forcing me to give a big something in return: Did the coach touch your penis today, Jav?
As the words left my mouth my hands grasped the steering wheel. A silent prayer went out into the universe. Please, God, don’t let this be happening to my boy.
Jav kind of freaked out, insisting that he didn’t say those words. I told him another mom told me he did. He vehemently denied it, saying she lied. Unsure what to do, I dropped the subject when our car pulled into our driveway.
Later that night, I talked about the incident with his dad, Ed, who’s both my ex-husband and one of my closest friends. He was angry, too, but unlike me, his anger was directed at Jav. Why would Jav say that, he asked me. Ed seemed to know instinctively that the woman was telling the truth. An adult wouldn’t lie, he insisted, but a kid would. The blame went further. He also turned on our pediatrician, a woman he’d never met but had heard about through me as we had just switched to a new practice for Jav’s annual physical. During the visit, while checking his penis, she had made a point to remind Jav that only parents and doctors should ever see or touch his private parts. At the time I was grateful she said it. With all the news about sexual predators in heavy rotation, I was grateful Jav was hearing the “rules” from someone other than me.
Ed didn’t see it that way. Why is everyone talking about that stuff, he asked. When he was a kid, he insisted, doctors didn’t say stuff like that. No one did. Ed thought it was confusing language for kids like Jav who are too young to understand what any of it really means.
I saw his point, but it only confused me more. I knew we were going to have to revisit the conversation with Jav, but I didn’t want to do it in such a way that it would make him feel like we weren’t on his side. Even though this instance was quite possibly unfounded, I don’t want my son to ever feel like he couldn’t come to us if—God forbid—anything like this ever really did happen. I want him to know he can trust us, but we also had to let him know that we need to be able to trust him, too. After talking to Ed as well as my boyfriend, Mark, I came up with a plan to go straight to the coach and ask him what happened instead of relying on a third party and a six-year-old.
By the time our next game rolled around a few days later, I was anxiety-ridden. I cheered and brought snacks, trying to seem like everything was normal, but inside, I was a nervous wreck. Mark held my hand and tried to tell me not to worry until I talked to the coach and knew for sure what happened.
When the game wrapped and everyone started heading to the parking lot, I walked up to Coach and told him what I’d heard from the other mom. He quickly put up both his hands, as if it was a hold-up, and insisted nothing happened. He visually showed me exactly how he stood behind Jav to help him hold the bat. He said it all happened quickly, and he figured it was one of those weird moments where kids say something off the cuff, hence why he never mentioned it. I was embarrassed. He seemed embarrassed. He was a great coach, and it was fast becoming clear to me that I’d had a hand in this mess.
My overwhelming fear of anything ever happening to Jav has made me so hyper-vigilant, I have been drilling it into my kid on a regular basis. For the past year, there’s been so much coverage of that damn Penn State scandal, I can’t help worry myself sick. Every chance I get—bath time, bedtime, while riding in the car—I’ve often reminded Jav of exactly what the pediatrician said. My language was always simple, but certainly repetitive. Our private parts are our own. No one should ever touch them, especially not strangers. If you ever feel uncomfortable about your privates in any way, or someone touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you can come tell me and I will never get mad at you.
The thing is, can you really blame me? As a single mom for the past six years, it hasn’t always been easy raising a boy in a city where we have no family. His dad, while wonderful, lives in another state. Our closest relatives are four hours away. I’ve been doing a pretty good job, if I do say so myself, but when boy issues pop up—hey, Mom, look what my penis is doing when I pull it out of the bathwater; hey, Mom, can you wear this cape and sword-fight me; hey, Mom, look at the tadpole colony I raised without telling you—I’ve often found myself totally winging it.
That day in the park was no exception. After apologizing to the coach for having been put in that situation and assuring him that I would talk to Jav about it, I asked my boy to sit on a bench with me. Mark was there, too, but he let me lead. He sat down next to us and silently offered moral support. Jav, I said, I talked to the coach and I know you really did tell him he touched your penis when in fact, he didn’t. I want you to know that I’m not mad, but I am disappointed. It’s really important that you tell me the truth, so I feel like I can trust you. And you didn’t do that this time.
Next I surprised everyone—myself included—with the story of the little boy who cried wolf. I don’t know why that came to me, but it did, and I went for it. To snag his attention, I embellished the Jav-friendly details and said the boy was a knight who liked to play in the woods. One day he made up a story to his family and friends that a bear had tried to attack him, but he fended him off with his magic sword. For days his parents sent an army of knights into the woods to kill the bear, but found nothing. With Jav’s eyes fixed on me, I delivered the final blow: One day, he really did come across a bear, and despite his screams, no one came to help. He had lied so much, no one believed him.
Cue the tears—for both of us. From Jav’s gut came huge sobs of shame and regret. Not only had he lied, he had disappointed me, the one person he wanted to please most in the world. I wrapped my arms around him as he begged for forgiveness, assuring him that I knew he was sorry, that this was just a part of growing up. There wasn’t much left for me to say to my boy. Those sobs were all the signs I needed that the message had come through, loud and clear.
Before we stood up to head out to our car, I made sure we were both clear on the most important lesson of all.
Jav, I know you’re going to make mistakes, we all do, but when it comes to something serious, like someone touching you where they shouldn’t, please don’t lie, or joke, for that matter. If someone ever hurts you, I will always defend you and do everything I can to help you, so long as I can trust you’re telling the truth.
I’m not quite ready to shut up about sticky subjects like these, and maybe I never will, but the next time my fears begin to overwhelm me, I’m going to try hard not to project them onto my son.
Has something like this ever happened to you? How did you handle it? I’d love to hear from you!