As Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes once opined regarding male genitalia, “I don’t know how you guys walk around with those things.” By the time we’re grown men, the answer is: with a slight waddle and ample reserve of Gold Bond powder. But as wee ones, our future babymaker is little more than bulbous diaper-filler with a faucet tip. Somewhere around the age of two or three, we meaningfully differentiate between boy and girl parts. Shortly thereafter, we develop both the shame and humility necessary to keep it in a cool, dry, private place for several years−ideally protected by layers of denim, flannel or cotton−before allowing it out among the world to poke around.
I’d considered all this the day I decided to formally introduce my son to his penis. They’d met, shaken hands and enjoyed urinary hijinks at my expense, but their awareness of one another was relatively uncorrupted. As I sat and watched my then-15-month-old (he’s 17 months as I write this, and will hopefully forgive me at 18 years), grab unappreciatively at his testicles, I thought, “Is that what my wife thinks I look like?” Then I contemplated whether interrupting such an innocent moment with formalities was entirely necessary.
Despite being Jewish, I’d already managed to shroud his sexuality in Catholic-level guilt.
I wondered what my parents did at this juncture of my infancy. My mom was largely in charge of all clothing and cleaning duties−as was still so often the case 30-plus years ago−so she’d have been the one to ask. (Although, a decade or so later and long after my folks’ divorce, my father did provide indispensable advice on how to mitigate perspiration buildup in my nethers.) But that would have meant initiating a dialogue with my mother about my penis, and I could barely afford biweekly therapy as it was. Though I assumed (and feel free to clarify in the comments, Mom) that she was ultimately concerned with the practical matter of getting me to slumber while keeping my hyperactive sister on a short leash.
Lacking access to any real precedent, I abruptly squeaked, “That’s your penis!” My son immediately released his major-league grip, having mistaken the world’s worst father-son instruction for cautionary panic, as if his penis were an open flame. Despite being Jewish, I’d already managed to shroud his sexuality in Catholic-level guilt. Determined, I calmly pointed and assured him, “Yeah, that’s your penis, that’s where you make pee-pee,” demonstrating both remarkable poise and fundamental misapprehension of bodily function.
Fortunately, he needn’t rely on me for anatomy lessons. He’ll get that from certified health teachers and patient lovers down the road. All I aimed to do was provide a beacon from which he could triangulate other coordinates on his body and maybe begin to illustrate where something hurts rather wail and flail.
Starting that next evening, I’d wrap up bath time by asking where his penis was, heading over to each leg, up toward an arm or two and, eventually, IDing his nose. It was akin to the grown-up protocol of checking that our keys, wallet and phone are all in their proper pockets before leaving the house. Perhaps the former even evolves into the latter, like some kind of macro-analog to scrotal development. Or maybe I’m just overthinking this.
But when it comes to my son’s penis (sorry again, future-18-year-old), the point is to offer him some appropriate, not-entirely precious context for an organ he’ll soon, and perpetually, be obsessed with. And it’s also about getting me comfortable with the kinds of conversations we’ll hopefully be having at various stages of his self-discovery, discussions that ideally will be insightful if not overly intimate.
My son’s penis will guide him through many a journey, and familiarizing him with its form and function feels like one giant step in moving our relationship past mere essential benefactor and beneficiary. To be sure, I’ll no doubt be like every other dad down the line, bonding over R-rated movies and buying him that first bat and glove. But only after I make sure he knows how to handle his balls.