August 23, 2012


Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person about Sex. By Deborah Roffman. Da Capo. $14.99.

Diary of a Parent Trainer. By Jenny Smith. Delacorte Press. $12.99.

      Information-packed but stylistically irritating, Talk to Me First is a thoughtful, chatty, intelligent discussion of human sexuality – not just sexual issues to be discussed between kids and parents, but sexuality from birth to adulthood, gender issues in everyday life, and more.  Its primary flaw is the way sex educator Deborah Roffman puts the information across: she is so determined to make her comments non-threatening that she incessantly lapses into parentheses and irritating stylistic quirks that interfere with her underlying seriousness of purpose.  She writes, “Install a virtual bug zapper of your own that’s hypersensitive to the word ‘tween.’”  And: “So you pick up your eight-year-old son…” (why the “so”?).  She calls a section “Back to the Teakettle” and begins it: “You know the drill.  Repeat after me, five times: sex, oral sex, anal sex, sexual pleasure, S and M, ‘queef’ (sound created by an air pocket in the vagina during intercourse), fart, tingly, pulsing, condom, nipples, orgasm, erection, ejaculation, clitoris, labia, stimulation, semen, erotic.  Just words, right?  You can’t be a go-to person if you can’t say them.”  And again and again, she uses parentheses just because she seems to enjoy them: “If girls (and boys) were to make up new rules…”  “(Teenage sex sells – beware what you read.)”  “Like Superman in a phone booth (what’s a phone booth?)…”  “If they (and we) adjust well…”  “They will date (although the exact form will vary greatly from teenager to teenager, community to community, and school to school)…”  “Fifth-grade ‘relationships’ are very short-lived (except for two of my friends from grade school who’ve been together almost continuously ever since).”  The overly cute style, undoubtedly intended to keep readers comfortable with the subject matter, rapidly becomes off-putting, and that is a shame, since Roffman is so good when she addresses subjects forthrightly and without the need to “cute-ify” them: “Within the space of ten seconds – because that’s how long ejaculation takes – [sexual intercourse] has the power to accomplish not one but three of the most powerful things there are, all at the same time: (1) create new life; (2) potentially take life away; and (3) change any number of people’s lives forever.  Interestingly, Roffman juxtaposes statements like this – about the tremendous power of sex and sexuality – with ones designed to make sex seem like no big deal, or rather like just an integral part of everyday life.  One of her best chapters, “Affirmation: Our Children as Sexual Beings,” opens by stating that people are sexual from birth – and explaining that the statement has nothing to do with what adults usually think of as “sexuality.”  Roffman points out that the sexual system is present and demonstrably functioning in newborns and even in utero: “Each day or night, at ninety-minute intervals during the brain’s natural sleep cycle, starting before birth, penises become erect…and in females, the vaginal walls release sexual lubricating fluid.”  Roffman’s point is not exactly to demystify sex – it is to show parents that it is ever-present in kids of any and all ages, and can therefore be discussed with children anytime, provided that the talks are done in age-appropriate ways (of which she gives numerous helpful examples).  Roffman’s analyses are frequently very intelligent and clever, as when she objects to a Family Guy episode not because of its language, sexual elements and treatment of the mother, but because of “the underlying assumption in the show, and often in our society, that boys, by nature, are bad.  It is fair to ask about this book, “So Where Am I Headed with All of This?” – an actual chapter subheading – because Roffman throws out so many thoughts and ideas in so many ways.  Where everything turns out to be heading is toward a final chapter called “Practice Makes Proficient: Let’s Go Fishing” (there’s that irritating style again), in which Roffman offers a series of scenarios involving kids of both genders and various ages, then asks readers the same four self-evaluative questions about each one.  Parents who have absorbed the information in Talk to Me First will presumably be able to handle these slices of reality with directness and without embarrassment; if not, they will presumably need to go back and reread parts of the book.  Roffman’s point is that for parents to be “go-to” people for their kids, they first have to be able to go to themselves for answers to difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions.  But, she argues, the questions should not be unanswered or unanswerable – and that is a fine message to take away from this book, even if it sometimes has to be pried away from the work’s less-than-endearing style.

      Roffman’s book will scarcely be the first one causing parents to wish that kids came with an operating manual.  Children undoubtedly have the same wishes about their parents – so Jenny Smith has written one.  Yes, Diary of a Parent Trainer, despite the tongue planted firmly in cheek, is a book in which 13-year-old Katie Sutton offers other teens a user’s manual for parents – everything needed to “achieve optimum performance from your Grown-Up or Grown-Ups, undertake straightforward maintenance and repairs, [and] ensure smooth operation, in most situations.”  Watch that “in most situations” phrase, though, since Katie soon finds herself dealing with a situation that her user manual doesn’t quite cover.  From the standpoint of the novel, this is both inevitable and something of a shame, since it nearly turns the book into just another “Mom is dating someone and I need to break them up” piece of fluff.  “Stuart’s not a creep or a monster,” Katie writes, but “it’s just wrong. Mum seeing someone.”  Juxtaposing these very ordinary comments – Katie’s mother is a widow – with ones about “operating” adults does lead to some funny observations.  “Your Grown-Up is nonreturnable.  The manufacturer accepts no liability for their many faults.  As they are probably, by now, slightly worn around the edges and past their best, if not seriously damaged, don’t even think of trying to get your money back. You cannot upgrade your Grown-Up. There are no refunds and no exchanges.  The book is also enlivened with time stamps, warnings (“when one Grown-Up goes into Reckless Mode, it can cause others to do the same”), and “Sad but True Fact” observations, sometimes followed by a “Useful Hint” or two: “It’s a horrible fact of life, but Grown-Ups snog too.  They take something that is perfectly acceptable in young and attractive people and turn it into a disturbing and tragic act. …If you find it hard to obliterate the image of the kissing incident from your mind, try to replace it with another more pleasant image – like trench warfare.”  Katie enlists help from her sister, Mandy, and brother, Jack, to get rid of Stuart, but Jack kind of likes Stuart, and Katie soon finds that her prescriptions for managing parents aren’t quite working out.  Not that she doesn’t try to be observant and attentive: “When a Grown-Up goes into Sad Mode, it is usually because of something that has happened.  …There are lots of clever things you can try, like mode-switching and the Distraction Technique or a great big sloppy cuddle…”  It takes more than 250 pages for Katie to realize that Stuart is “not someone who was wanting to take our mum away from us” but “just another human being trying to get by in the world.”  Unfortunately, by the time Katie has this revelation, her plan to get rid of Stuart is working all too well.  So there is an inevitable breakup and an equally inevitable getting-back-together, and everything eventually ends happily (at Christmas, no less) – all of which is unsurprising and also a bit of a shame, since the sappy standardization of the book’s plot progress interferes with its genuinely creative “user’s manual” approach.  Despite everything, though, Diary of a Parent Trainer is fun, and it is just offbeat enough to stand out from the many books that are similarly plotted but lack an equally interesting foundational premise.

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