A shiver still goes up my spine when I think of the night, 31 years ago, that I heard my parents doing it. I was nine. I never saw anything, but the sound of their moans is still with me today.
Last year, my eight-year-old caught my fiancé and I doing it. She just walked into the room early one evening, before her bedtime. My fiancé ran into the bathroom, yelling, ‘I’m just taking a shower!” as my daughter asked, “What are you guys doing?” I answered with the first thing that came to mind. “We were wrestling!”
The answer seemed to satiate her. (But not me—I was mortified.) How did we handle it? I took her to her bedroom and we read a story. We never mentioned the incident again.
Some kids this age are mature enough to know that they shouldn’t barge into a bedroom without knocking. Eve Vawter, a mother of four kids, says, “My children have all knocked on my door when we’re having sex and we’ve replied with the same excuse so many times that it’s now our code name for sexy adult time." Her euphemism? “We’re busy doing taxes.” If and when her children figure out that grown-ups don’t need to file taxes multiple times during the week, she says she is “totally screwed.”
Jane Guild’s* two kids were six and eight when they caught her and her husband doing the deed. Her husband’s panicked response? “Mommy and I are playing horsey!”
“The funny thing is,” says Guild, “the kids then jumped on the bed on top of us—they wanted to play, too!” She doesn’t think her children realized what was really going on, not yet having had the birds-and-bees talk in full detail. To prevent a repeat incident, her husband recently put locks on their bedroom door.
Why don’t more parents, including me, put locks on bedroom doors? It’s most likely because we want our children to have access to us. Hanna McDonough, a psychotherapist who deals with family and couple issues, says she doesn’t understand why parents don’t ensure their own privacy. “It’s too late once the kids walk in. Adults should have proper management with their sex life and that includes putting locks on doors.”
After one too many times being interrupted, Sarah Lawrence* and her husband, who have four children, have taken another approach to sex when the kids are home—the truth. “We say it in a joking way: Mom and Dad need some alone time. Mostly they are like, ‘Eww.’ But they don’t come in and don’t bother us.”
So what do you do if it happens to you? Don’t pretend to be clueless or act like it never happened. As awkward as it may be, you should talk it through. McDonough is a strong believer in the truth—no one should feel ashamed of sex. “Parents carry around the thought that they shouldn’t be doing this. If you just disappear and say nothing, then sex becomes a secret, and children don’t like secrets.”
Anna Toth, a marriage and family therapist, says that kids are not necessarily traumatized by witnessing their parents having sex. “They may be shocked, or they might even think you’re fighting. Kids can come to all sorts of conclusions.” There could be many different ways to explain it, depending on your child’s level of knowledge. “Most children at this age do have some understanding of sex,” says Toth. Try saying something along the lines of, “This is why the door is closed. This is how we show we love each other as adults, in adult relationships.”
*Names have been changed.
A version of this article appeared in our February 2013 issue with the headline "Caught in the act," p. 48.