How are adolescent boys learning about sex these days? By pointing, clicking, and streaming through a seemingly endless supply of Internet pornography. That’s right, online porn is now the default form of sex education for a growing number of young boys because they simply are not getting the information they need elsewhere. Personally, I find this prospect kind of scary. I mean, do you really want your son to learn everything he knows about sex from watching Ron Jeremy? And do you really want him to think that the bodies that he sees in porn are “normal” for men and women, or that the sexual script that plays out in porn videos is how real life relationships actually work (i.e., plumber arrives, clothes are torn off followed by extensive oral sex, pizza deliveryman arrives followed by tag team intercourse and gratuitous money shots, etc.)? I didn’t think so. Although it’s unlikely that anything you say will prevent your son from eventually searching for porn, what you can do is teach him about sex in a responsible way so that porn does not become his “how-to” guide for sex and relationships.
When it comes to teaching kids about sex, most parents simply don’t know what they should say, how they should say it, or when these conversations should begin. This seems to be especially true for dads, with research finding that fathers are typically far less involved than mothers in their children’s sex education.1 Although there may be any number of reasons for this (e.g., women are more likely to be primary caregivers and are usually seen as the health educators in the home), the fact of the matter is that dads sit on the sidelines far too often in this regard. And when dads do talk to their sons about sex, these “talks” usually involve jokes, awkward silence, and a tendency to keep the more serious issues at a distance.2 This is a shame because by a wide margin teenage boys report that their parents are the most influential figures in their lives when it comes to making decisions about sex.3 And a lack of open and honest sexual communication has negative consequences. For instance, most teens report that they would have an easier time postponing sexual activity if they could talk more to their parents about sex.
So, for all of the dads out there, when should you have “the talk” with your son and what should you say? Below are a couple of tips to help get you started on the right foot.
1. Initiate the talk about sex early – ideally by age 10 or 11, if not sooner. Far too many parents want to wait until their kids are older or until the time seems “right” to broach the subject. However, the longer you wait, the less likely it is that the talk will ever happen, or if it does, it may be too little, too late. Admittedly, it is more difficult with boys than it is with girls to determine the “right” age, because with girls menstruation provides a natural segue into talking about sexual development. However, consider the fact that most boys are searching for pornography by the age of 10 or 11. With that social marker in mind, it tells us that boys need a relatively early lesson so that parents do not miss out on a vital opportunity to shape their sons’ ideas about sex and relationships.
2. Find out when and what your kids are learning about sex in school – and be prepared to fill in the gaps. If possible, consider attending the sex education program your kids will be exposed to or, at the very least, speak with your son’s teacher about what exactly will be covered. The idea here is that you do not simply want to assume that your kids are getting all of the knowledge they need elsewhere. For example, just consider that more than one-third of teenage boys report receiving no formal instruction regarding contraceptive use in school.4 You need to know what the school is providing so that you can supplement the information and also be prepared to answer any questions that your child might have.
3. Recognize that uncertainty and embarrassment are normal reactions for any parent in this situation. Please do not avoid having the talk because you don’t know how or because your parents never had the talk with you. The reality is that no one knows what they are supposed to say in this situation, and there is not one “correct” way to teach your kids about sex. It is also worth acknowledging that the talk will likely be embarrassing, but that there are things you can do to cope with that.5 For example, remember that kids embarrass their parents all of the time in all kinds of situations—so this should not be a new experience for you! If you are worried that you won’t have the right words or be able to describe things well enough, then bring out some pictures and books to help (such as Let’s Talk About S-E-X), or try to tie the conversation in with things that you see together on television.
4. Don’t leave all of the hot-button and serious issues off of the table. As I mentioned above, dads have a tendency to keep the more serious issues at bay, but please try to avoid doing this. The talk that you have about sex should include more than just the mechanics of how babies are made, because human sexuality is far more complex and your kid wants (and needs) to know more than just the basics. Topics such as sexual orientation, masturbation, oral sex, and sexual assault should all be addressed too. You might think that teaching your son how to avoid getting a girl pregnant is the only goal here, but keep in mind that vaginal intercourse is just one of many sexual activities boys might pursue and that not all boys are heterosexual. How do you feel about other activities and what should your son know to keep himself (and his partners) safe?
5. Keep the conversation going and be sure to talk about relationships too. Finally, keep in mind that “the talk” isn’t just a one-time thing. This is an ongoing conversation you will need to have with your son as he gets older because new questions are bound to come up for him and it’s impossible to teach someone everything they should know about sex and sexuality in the span of just one short conversation. Also, keep in mind that your talks should not focus exclusively on sex—it is important to talk about relationships too. Developing healthy relationships is something that most of us learn by trial and error because it is not taught in elementary or high school, and not necessarily even in college. Sex, love, and intimacy all go together, so try as much as you can to relate these to one another over the course of your talks.
On a side note, while the focus of this article was on dads talking to their sons (a common problem area), most of the above tips would be useful for any parent who is trying to figure out how to talk to their child about sex. For more resources on this topic, check out Talking With Kids About Sex.
1Walker, J. L. (2001). A qualitative study of parents' experiences of providing sex education for their children: The implications for health education. Health Education Journal, 60, 132-146.
2Wight, D. (1994). Boys' thoughts and talk about sex in a working class locality of Glasgow. Sociological Review, 42, 703-737.
3Albert, B. (2010). With one voice 2010: America’s adults and teens sound off about teen pregnancy. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
4Martinez, G., Abma, J., & Copen, C. (2010). Educating teenagers about sex in the United States. NCHS Data Brief. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db44.pdf
5Walker, J. (2004). Parents and sex education—looking beyond ‘the birds and the bees.’ Sex Education: Sexuality, Society and Learning, 4, 239-254.
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