On the heels of last month’s article on why parents might feel anxious about talking with their children and teens about sex, it’s important to offer parents teaching sexuality to their children some helpful and concrete strategies. Specifically, it may help parents learn how to start talking to their sons about sex by answering some common questions parents and caregivers ask.
“What role do I play in my child’s or teen’s sex education?”
A lot of parents question whether they should be the ones providing sex education to their children. What’s important to know is that you play a critical role in this part of your child’s and teen’s learning and, therefore, have a huge influence on their sexual health.
Research shows that caregivers have a more significant impact on the sexual well-being of their children when ongoing conversations about sex and sexuality occur within the family (and not just in the classroom). So, whether parents like it or not, they have a key role in their children and teens developing healthy understandings and attitudes about sex and sexuality. In addition, given that sexual health education in schools tend to focus on factual information without the context of values, parents and caregivers are in the unique position to interpret sex education with their own family’s specific emotional needs and values. Lastly, given that 20 states still do not mandate comprehensive sex education, a child’s and teen’s understanding of sex and sexuality, consent, healthy relationships, and pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infection (STI) prevention is primarily left to parents and caregivers.
“When do I start talking to my son about sex and puberty, and how do I bring up the topic?”
Basically, the earlier you can bring it up, the better. As mentioned in last month’s blog, it’s never too early but don’t fret if you feel like you’ve waited too long. It’s never too late to begin.
How you broach the topic is another matter, and it’s important to first understand that you are trying to educate and reach your child using your own values, your own family structure, and your communication style. So, after you’ve taken a deep breath, you can start by asking an open-ended question like, “So I think it would be a great time to start talking about something really interesting and important. Can you tell me what you know about how babies get made?”
Once you’ve asked a beginning, open-ended question (again, this initial question will depend on the age of your son), just listen to their response. Whether it’s “I don’t know” or an answer that needs refining (which is likely), now you have important information about where your child’s understanding is, and you can start to fill in the gaps with medically-accurate, age-appropriate information. You can also use open-ended questions as you follow up with your son after you’ve had some time talking with him about the topic. For example, you can ask, “What do you think about what we just talked about?” A closed or leading question like, “Were you okay with what we just talked about?” will yield less information from your son than the first option.
For children who are around 5th grade and above, a built-in opportunity to bring up the topic may arise each year when the school is about to teach its sexual health education curriculum (which is usually every spring). If your son’s school district has such a curriculum, make sure you have access to it (most curricula are on the school’s/district’s website or you can email the school directly and ask for access). Use the curriculum to again ask open-ended questions about what your son is about to or has recently learned. This allows you to fill in any gaps in knowledge if present. By using the school’s yearly sexual health education programs, you have a built-in mechanism to initiate discussions with your son if you feel you need it.
“Are there some important do’s and don’ts when talking to my son about sex, sexuality, puberty, or changing bodies?”
When talking about sexuality, it’s crucial to come from a place of non-judgment and calmness, despite the anxiety or discomfort that the topic can elicit in some parents. Setting a calm, constructive, and open tone sets the stage for developing an open conversation.
As a rule of thumb, the younger your child, the shorter and clearer your explanations should be. For example, if your son asks where babies come from, and he’s 4 or 5 years old, then saying, “A baby comes from a mommy and a daddy. When a mommy and a daddy want a baby, they get together and have one” is good enough for the time being. If your son is 7 or 8 years old, they’ll need more info: “Both mom and dad help make a new baby. The dad’s sperm goes inside to meet the mom’s egg, and they make a tiny baby that begins to grow in a special baby-room inside the mommy.” Again, as your son ages and matures, you will be able to offer more detailed information that he will be better equipped to understand.
In addition, as puberty educators and experts Dr. Cara Natterson and Vanessa Kroll Bennett emphasize, remind your son about the importance and privacy of these conversations to ensure that he does not talk to other same-aged peers or younger children/siblings about what he’s learning. You can explain that it’s important to respect the boundaries of what he learns by talking about it with the trusted adults in his life and not others (younger children, certain peers), who may not be ready to learn about it.
Of course, avoid lecturing and preaching and don’t use scare tactics to get points across. Shaming should never occur, regardless of the topic and especially if and when your son comes to you with all sorts of questions about sex. Always provide medically-accurate information and use correct, anatomical terminology (not euphemisms). This allows for a common language when communicating with your child about sex and facilitates smoother conversations.
Dr. Natterson and Kroll Bennett helpfully point out another important “Don’t”: Don’t forget the power of the “do-over”. Parents can place way too much pressure on themselves to explain things perfectly the first time around. As a parent, you’re allowed to take a “do-over” given that you will probably wish you had explained things differently and want another try. When this happens, simply say something like, “You know, I think I’d like a do-over for how I explained where babies come from. Can I try that again because I think I could have explained it better?” Take the pressure off of yourself by knowing you can always try again.
Finally, for upper elementary school children and older, it is not unusual for them to avoid asking questions about sex due to embarrassment or general discomfort with the topic. Because of this uneasiness, many children will seek answers to their questions about sex elsewhere, including the internet. Therefore, it’s important to tell your child or tween to avoid getting answers to their questions about sex by going onto the internet unsupervised and then tell them why. Explain to them that a parent should be with them online when learning about sex and that there are many websites that are for adults only and that teach about sex in confusing, inaccurate, and unrealistic ways. Let your son know that you know what the healthy and appropriate websites are and that the two of you will explore these websites together. Of course, you should have appropriate boundaries and protections in place related to web browsing for your child, but, as we know, there are workarounds that children and teens know. So a clear “Don’t” in this case would be not to let your child explore the internet unsupervised to learn about sex, while still normalizing his curiosity and need to have his questions answered.
There are helpful websites for children and teens that you can review and endorse for your child to explore (with or perhaps without you). As always, look through them first to determine if they are compatible with your values, comfort level, and child’s developmental level. Here are some:
- For males 13 years and older: youngmenshealthsite.org
- For females (5th – 12th grade): girlshealth.gov
- For males and females (5th – 8th grades): amaze.org
“What if my son comes to me with questions before I ever broach the topic? What if my son keeps asking me lots of questions after we have started having these talks?”
Great! Consider yourself lucky and be grateful! Your son coming to you (or coming back to you) with questions shows he trusts you and indicates that you can create a healthy dynamic with your child so they see you as a safe person to go to.
So, if they ask any type of question about sex, sexuality, terms or meanings of words, body parts, etc., Dr. Natterson and Kroll Bennett recommend your initial, go-to response be something like, “I’m so glad you asked this question” or “What an interesting question” regardless of how shocking the question might be. Your follow-up question could then be, “What makes you think of/ask that?” This allows you to get some context for their question as well as buy some time for you to gather your thoughts (and perhaps pick yourself up off of the floor!) and then answer as honestly and accurately as you can. For additional helpful examples of language to use when trying to answer your child’s or teen’s questions about sex, be sure to subscribe to Dr. Natterson’s and Koroll Bennett’s podcast: The Puberty Podcast. They also have a wonderful new book out: This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained.
“What if my son asks me a question that I don’t immediately know how to answer?”
Again, your standard response starts with, “That’s a good question. What made you think of it?” His answer helps you frame where he’s coming from and gives you some time to think of how you want to respond. Generally, if your son asks you a question to which you do not know the answer, it’s perfectly okay for you to say something like, “Again, that’s a great question, and I actually don’t know the answer to that. But, I’m going to find the answer and get back to you ASAP.” If your son asks a question to which you know the answer but are unsure about how to best answer it, you can say something like, “I need to think about how to best answer this, and I promise I will get back to you on this.”
“What if my son doesn’t come to me with any questions because he is perhaps too uncomfortable?”
This isn’t unusual. If drawing him out by asking open-ended questions doesn’t work well enough in getting conversations about sex going, another interesting option could be to create a “box of questions” so he can write questions down on a piece of paper, fold it up, and drop it into the box. You can then check the box periodically, see if he’s dropped anything into it, respond to any of his questions in writing, and drop your answer back into the box for him to read. I’ve had friends and other parents tell me that, for their child, this worked. If you think this technique might be effective and helpful for your child, then let him know that you’ll set up the box and explain it to him.
You can similarly set up a private journal that can be passed between he and you with questions from him and answers from you that can keep healthy information flowing despite less frequent face-to-face sex talks. Either of the two above options could be helpful. Try it. See what happens.
“Are there any sex education resources to help me along the way as I begin or continue my son’s sexual health education?”
Yes! An even better way to teach kids and teens about sex is to use helpful, age-appropriate resources all along the way. As a parent, please don’t feel like you’re on your own. There are countless, wonderful books for you to read with your children that explain the whole range of topics so well.
There are also publications that are geared for children and teens to read on their own. Two thoughts on these types of books: 1) Do not use these books as an avoidance or replacement of having face-to-face, age-appropriate sex talks with your son; and 2) Make sure you read through and screen these books to make sure they align with your personal values about sex and sexuality.
Below are just a few that I would recommend:
Books for parents to read with their children:
- For young children (Pre K-3rd grade): Your Whole Body by Lizzie DeYoung Charbonneau
- For ages 4 and up: It’s Not the Stork! by Robie H. Harris
- For ages 10 and up: It’s So Amazing! by Robie H. Harris
- For ages 14 and up: It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris
- For non-binary youth: Where’s MY Book? A Guide for Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Youth, Their Parents, & Everyone Else by Linda Gromko
Books for children and teens to read and re-read alone:
- Guy Stuff: The Body Book for Boys by Dr. Cara Natterson
- Guy Stuff Feelings: Everything You Need to Know about Your Emotions by Dr. Cara Natterson
- You-ology: A Puberty Guide for EVERY Body by Melissa Holmes, M.D., Trish Hutchison, M.D., Kathryn Lowe, M.D.
- The P Word: A Manual for Mammals by David Hu
Of course, there are also great resources for you to access and read in order to help guide you in your goal of helping your child and teen have a positive and healthy knowledge and attitude about sex and sexuality. Here are a few:
Books for parents and caregivers only:
- How to Talk with Your Kids about Sex: Helping Your Children Develop a Positive, Healthy Attitude Toward Sex and Relationships by Dr. John T. Chirban
- For parents of middle school boys and above: Boys & Sex by Peggy Orenstein
- Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising Sons by Cara Natterson, M.D.
- Sex Education for Boys: A Parent’s Guide. Practical Advice on Puberty, Sex, and Relationships by Scott Todnem
Take a breath. Take the plunge. Take your time.
Remember that you are the key part of your son’s sexual health education. No one knows your son better than you. And while sex is one of the most important and least talked about topics in parenting, know that you have support in the form of a partner, a friend, your son’s school or doctor, resources such as books and websites, or information provided here at BIG. There can be a lot of personal feelings of pressure or anxiety about talking to your son about sex but know that if you take that breath and go for it, things will likely work themselves out in the end……and your son will be better off for it.
And don’t forget about The Remote BIG Talk for Boys event to be held on Saturday, October 14th, 2023 @ 9:00 am (PST). There’s also a free pre-event (Getting Ready For The Remote BIG Talk for Boys) to be held two weeks earlier on Saturday, September 30th, 2023 @ 9:00 am (PST). You can find information on content and registration for both events here: https://boysinstitute.com/the-big-talk-live-online-group/