Should eighth-graders debate abortion? A three-years-late response

Once, at a dinner party, I mentioned where I work and the conversation — as often happens — veered into awkwardness. A woman across the table pointed her fork at me and said, “My daughter’s eighth-grade English class is having a debate. One of the topics is abortion. Don’t you think that’s inappropriate for 13- and 14-year-olds?”

I had a mouthful of chicken and stumbled through an incoherent defense heavily featuring the sound, “ummm….” The mom sat back, smugly confident that she’d defeated my fuzzy-liberal logic. But like many people whose English class didn’t hold debates (and who would have hidden in the bathroom if it had), my brilliant answer was merely gestating. So, Fork-waving Mom, if I could find you again, here’s what I would say:

Eighth grade is such a betwixt-and-between time. In many ways, eighth-graders are still deliciously young, but their world is rapidly expanding. By now, most kids know the world is a messy and complex place. They’ve seen good people—some who they love(d) and trust(ed)—go through an acrimonious divorce or addiction or untimely death. They’ve seen cruelty, selfishness and violence, if not first-hand, probably closer than you realize. They’ve likely done some bad things themselves, just to test out what it feels like: bullied someone, stolen candy, lied to you, smoked a cigarette, maybe even snuck some liquor.

They are beginning to explore the idea that values can vary, that sometimes people say one thing and mean another, that two equally good and moral people can disagree. So I am thrilled that your daughter’s eighth-grade teacher is helping them along this journey by staging debates, teaching them that they need to have reasons and data to back up their opinions.

Is abortion an appropriate topic? That depends. If the other subjects are “Should the cafeteria serve only organic lettuce?” or “Is golf a sport or a game?” then I’d agree that abortion seems like a heavy choice. But if other topics cover the death penalty, minimum wage, incarceration, marijuana legalization or other deeply divisive and morally fraught subjects, abortion seems perfectly appropriate.

I wonder how much your concern is specific to the sexual content of abortion. Eighth-grade is a (cluelessly) sex-obsessed time. During an class camping trip in eighth grade, my friends and I took turns wearing reflective aviator sunglasses (Magnum, PI was big back then) to check out the boys’ “packages” as though we knew what we were looking for/at. We called each other “whore” and “strumpet” as terms of endearment. We collapsed into giggles any time the number 69 came up, or when someone said banana or popsicle or lick or hundreds of other words we were sure referred exclusively to sex. We were wise as only the dazzlingly naive could be.

(And this was no wild crowd: this was the Gifted and Talented program’s astronomy camping trip, a.k.a. NerdFest Under the Stars. If you think times have changed, my equally dorky daughter brought home conversation topics from her eighth-grade lunch table that would curl the hair on your chest.)

Your little baby already knows a few things about sex. If she’s listened to any pop song or watched a PG-rated movie, she knows that people have sex for fun, even with people they don’t love. She knows that people get drunk and make bad choices sometimes. (My daughter jokes that every current pop song could be summarized with, “I’m hot. You’re hot. Let’s get drunk and have sex. What could go wrong?”) Your daughter knows that some people are deeply, profoundly unready or unsuited to be parents. So she’s probably ready to talk about abortion.

And it would be spectacularly helpful if more people had open, real conversations about abortion. One in four women in America have had an abortion by the time they’re 45. Each year, almost as many women have abortions as caesarian births. Three times as many have abortions as breast augmentation. Over the next couple decades, it’s likely that your little baby will know a close friend, sister, cousin, someone she loves and trusts, who has one; there’s a one-in-four chance that she will have one herself. Open, real, fact- and experience-based conversations might help all these women feel less alone in their experience. And eighth grade is probably a reasonable time to start.

But we parents have a gaping blind spot about our own children, seeing them as the babies they once were. The other day, I was picking my son up from practice. I saw him far across the field, among the dozens of teams practicing in their matching uniforms. I was almost to him when I realized that the boy I thought was my son was at least three years younger, still knobby-kneed and puppy-ish. “Hey, mom,” said a voice behind me. I turned and saw a man-child, shoulders already broadening, tossing his hair out of his eyes. “Didn’t you see me?”

No, I didn’t see him. I couldn’t. And that’s the difficult part of parenting, isn’t it? We look up in the middle of an average day, expecting to see dimpled knees and chiclet-toothed smiles, only to be surprised by braces and acne. Or we turn, expecting to see braces and acne, and find the bristly face of a fledgling adult. They aren’t babies anymore; your eighth-grader is ready for these conversations, even if you’re not.

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