The birds and the bees

As near as I can tell, the old nature metaphor won’t be any help in explaining sex to my kids.

Illustration by Gracia Lam

NOT LONG AGO, IN THE BACK SEAT OF THE CAR, my son was laughing about the word “weenie.” His little sister, 7, started talking about her “weenie.”

“No,” my 9-year-old son said. “Weenie is like a hot dog, what you have is more like  . . .  a bun.”

My response: Crank up the radio and obliterate conversation.


Clearly, we’re going to have to have The Talk with the kids soon. You know, about “the birds and the bees.” My own sex education was outsourced by my parents to the local public school, so I never had the “birds and bees” talk, and this gap in my learning has left me with a lifelong question: What do birds and bees have to do with anything? They reproduce, sure. But so do spiders and alligators. We don’t have freighted conversations about spiders and alligators, do we?

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I’ve been trying to figure this out. First: the birds. OK, they lay eggs. As far as I can tell, this is the main reason birds get roped into this embarrassing talk — they externalize mammalian reproduction. But here’s the really embarrassing part: Because I believed bird reproduction was a metaphor for human sex, I had long thought male birds somehow fertilize eggs that had already been laid. Right now you are thinking one of two questions: (1) “Is this guy stupid?” or (2) “Don’t they?” (Answers: yes, no.)

So if birds copulate, fertilizing eggs internally, and then lay them, well, what does this add to the discussion of human sexuality? It only complicates the issue by adding the extra step of newborns breaking out of shells.

That’s birds, as far as I can tell. How about bees? I know enough to realize bees are not there as analogues to human reproduction. We’re not telling our kids that only one female in a family unit will get impregnated and that the (multiple!) male sperm donors will die soon after the act, are we? No, bees are clearly meant to allude to the reproductive cycle of plants. Plants make bright, beautiful flowers and fill them with nectar and pollen to attract bees, which transport the pollen, allowing plants to reproduce.

OK. So pretty much everything in this system is something I want to warn my children against. From the plant’s point of view: Spend all your time trying to make yourself attractive to suitors? No way, put down that makeup and go do your homework. Let a third party transport your genetic material to your desired mate? No, thanks (exceptions made for board-certified reproductive endocrinologists).


From the bee’s point of view: Flit around sampling all the prettiest flowers? Please don’t, you’ll develop a reputation. Unknowingly fertilize a plant and then fly back to your home to spend time with your “real family”? Ack! No!

Clearly “the birds and the bees” don’t explain the first thing about human sexuality. It must be possible to enlighten kids without having to bring in crazy inter-species metaphors. Really, what do we need to tell our kids about sex? “Through sex, mothers and fathers contribute genetic material to make a baby. You can have sex without making babies, and people do because it makes them feel good. Sex can lead to medical and emotional consequences, and if you can’t handle the consequences, you’re not ready for sex. Also, pornography is not reality.” Neither birds nor bees help to convey any of those messages.

Of course, the last thing to explain would be the mechanics of intercourse, but the birds and the bees don’t help there either. I may have to go back to the hot dog and the bun.

Jack Cheng writes in Waban and on Twitter @jakcheng. Send comments to

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