It used to be that the most awkward question your child could ask was "where do babies come from?". A pivotal moment in your child growing up; making the leap from innocent belief in fairies and storks, to the bare and frankly slightly gross reality of S-E-X.
We crossed that bridge with my eldest boys a while ago. Their school started sex education classes from Year 1, beginning with simple things like the correct anatomical names for genitals and discussing family relationships. I have a fond and honestly not at all cringe-worthy moment of Lucas bounding out of school one afternoon, very excited to know the proper name for his private parts and loudly declaring that he also knew the name for what women have - "it's FLANGINA, isn't it Mum!". Don't worry, he knows the proper name now and the novelty of singing songs about private parts has almost worn off.
So far it's been a pretty painless experience, although we're yet to get to the mechanics of what goes where. I'm resolved to stick with honest, age-appropriate answers to their questions as and when they ask me. For now, the boys have decided that sex sounds gross and they'd rather hear about the details when they're older. I'm cool with that but remain slightly concerned that they'll pick up some weird interpretation of it from playground gossip.
That's something you just can't account for when you have children. You can plan out what you'll teach them and when, but there's just nothing you can do about the stuff they hear at school from other kids. It's actually more alarming than I'd ever realised. Lucas has often come home from school puzzled or upset by something he's overheard, and it's lead to many discussions about racism, sexism, violence, bullying and so on. I feel he's more world-aware than I was at his age and all of it prompted by things he's picked up outside of my control.
So, back to the question he asked this week which filled me with dread.
"Mum, when can I have a Facebook account of my own?"
Oh, good lord. Never. Never ever ever. I've seen the Facebook pages of some teens and pre-teens (forgetting for a moment the T&Cs about a minimum age of 13). Some of them are HORRIBLE; admittedly no more horrible than those of some adults but it shocked me to see kids behaving like this. Thinking back to my school days, I'm pretty sure kids are no more or less horrible than they used to be, but social networking is a whole new platform for them to explore that whole mess of hormones, relationships, friendships, conflict and general awfulness that comes with adolescence. Not only that, but once something is out there on the internet, it's there forever. Even deleting stuff doesn't make it go away.
In the same week as news broke of the terribly tragic death of Hannah Smith, people are again talking about cyber-bullying and how to tackle it. I've only come vaguely close to the receiving end of this, following a fall out on Twitter with a certain celebrity "doctor" who proceeded to invite his followers to send me unpleasant messages. For the rest of that evening I was inundated with insults, threats and assorted nastiness. It was upsetting but thankfully over after a few hours. I cannot begin to imagine what that must feel like over a prolonged period of time. The internet breeds anonymity and with that a sort of perverse courage to type things you would never say to a person's face.
How do I introduce my children to the universe of social networking and adequately protect them from this aspect of it? I'll be buggered if I know! This stuff didn't exist when I was a young'un. Mobile phones were barely in circulation and certainly couldn't take photos or upload things instantaneously to the internet.
My eldest son is only 8 so I have a few more years where I can get away with telling him he's too young for the likes of Facebook, but given that he's already remarkably tech-savvy I think I have some research to do about protecting children online.