A three-year-old's quest to find the answer to the timeless question, "What's in your pants?"
The other day, there was two minutes of continuous silence at home. Now this may seem very ordinary to you, but in here, more than 20 seconds of quiet, when he’s awake, means he’s up to something — usually trying to climb to the top of the steel cupboard or dousing himself in a bucket of water, on the bed. I shot out of my chair and skidded into my room.
He was seated on the floor, utterly fascinated with human anatomy. He’d just discovered an appendage and was now testing for elasticity, tensile strength, length, odour…
First instinct was to yell “YUCK!” I got to “yu,” but caught myself. I gently prised his hands away, gave him a scrubbing surgeons would be proud of, and distracted him with some inane toy.
It was close thing. If I'd yelled - not as a chastisement, but even generally raised my voice - I could've done some damage. I was stopped by the look on his face; I’d seen that look before.
He was two years old. I saw him one morning, out in the balcony, looking up at his hands; a glass of warm milk sat by him, forgotten. He flexed fingers, intertwining, as sunlight streamed through them. He slowly closed them. Light made his fist glow orange. He looked up at me, delighted.
That was the first instance of body-awareness I remember in my son. It was quite a moment. From then on, he embarked on a steady process of discovery. This progressed over several stages. It’s impressive how systematic he’s been about his research.
Stage 1 —
He quickly learned to name various body parts. He said them out loud, sang them as little poems — the evergreen, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes,” for instance.
He practiced using them in sentences (“A snake bit me. My foot hurts. I ran into a wall. My shoulder hurts. A car hit me. My chest and back hurt.) His preoccupation with disaster apart, it was heartening to see him pick up words.
Stage 2 —
He began looking for similar organs in animals. “Why doesn’t a crow have hands? Where are my wings?” That sort of thing. It hit upon him then that these organs had a purpose beyond novelty.
“Why did God give me hands? Why did he give me feet?” We were able to give him convincing answers. He was disappointed that hair didn’t have higher purpose. Then, after a shower, he looked down and said, “What’s that thing called?”
Stage 3 —
“Do you have one too? What does yours look like? Does amma have one too?”
Now, every parent knows this day’s coming. But it’s still incredibly funny when it hits. You can’t laugh at him, though; that’d burst his bubble. After all, it's precious when you're as fascinated with your penis as you are with a fistful of sunlight.
So you tell him the truth, and open new windows of knowledge. “Yes, I do, but bigger, much bigger. unfortunately, amma doesn’t have one.” Intense analysis. Sincere concern. “Then how does she go to the bathroom?” “Well, why don’t you go ask her yourself?”
The mother comes back from work in a tearing hurry, storms into her room. Running behind her to keep up is a brown, sweating, question mark in underpants. She goes into the bathroom, turns around and finds him standing by the commode, arms behind his back.
“What are you doing?” He shakes his head, digs in his heels some more. She says, “I need to go to the bathroom. What. Are. You. Doing?” He takes a determined breath and says, “I need to see what it looks like.”
I think I’ll leave that anecdote at that stalemate stage. If you really must know, however, the situation was resolved in the next 30 seconds and it involved painful laughter on one side and a thwarted spirit of enquiry on the other.
The story spreads, of course. Personal embarrassment is outweighed by pride over the silliest things our kids do. “It is to be expected,” the elders declared. “All kids do it,” they said. Then they pause for effect, look over their spectacles. Those that weren’t wearing any, raised their eyebrows all the way to the ceiling, before announcing, “You did it too.” Then they launched into a detailed, indexed account of what else you pulled at an age of which you had no memory. But the elders claim they remember vividly. So now, even if you can’t verify these allegations, all you can do is cringe in discomfort, as they chuckle wickedly. They assert that it was a phase and would pass, on its own.
The boy, meanwhile, is obsessed with his quest. The result is a deluge of questions. Why don’t girls have it? — Do birds have it? — Do animals have it? — Where is that dog’s penis? — How can that cow be a girl? It’s got penises.
More curiosity. "Amma, what are those things sticking out of your chest?" Even more curiosity. "Appa, I think I'm going to touch your penis. See, my hand is an aeroplane, and it's going to make a landing."
Finally, we sat him down and talked with him. We told him about the birds and the bees; not the reproduction part, he wasn't interested yet. We discussed the privates of a dozen species. The narrative had a PG rating. We told him about propriety, gave him some insights into hygiene, explained how the two were linked.
We fleshed out our repeated warnings about inappropriate touching, by unfamiliar people; told him only three people on this planet were allowed to touch him down there. He asked pertinent questions, repeated some of the instructions back to us. He listened well, he seemed satisfied.
We were rather proud. We had taught our son something, surprisingly, without psychological damage. We strutted around the house, called friends, gloated to them. We had this parenting thing down. No biggie. All it needs is some basic intelligence and awareness.
As we wallowed in smugness, our bundle of delight walks in, a cherubic expression on his face. He walked past us, went to his grandfather and demanded, "thatha, show me your penis!"
The elders cackled like Macbeth's witches.
(Anand Venkateswaran is fascinated with people and with words. So he writes about people. Even when he's writing about food, film or formaldehyde. Fatten his ego or spit in his punch, at firstname.lastname@example.org)