Q: My children recently came across some pornography sites on the Internet and are asking me to explain what they saw. I am a single mother and am not sure how much to tell my sons (ages 10 and 13) about sex because I don’t want to give them too many ideas. Will talking about sex make them feel more comfortable to be sexually active?
A: This is a great question and one that troubles almost all parents. According to several studies, over 60 percent of parents have not spoken to their early adolescent children about how to prevent pregnancy or avoid STDS. The statistic holds up with younger children as well, with less than half the parents not able to discuss peer pressure or sex with their kids. Schools are bound to distant mandates and respond to adult levels of sexual discomfort by either providing an abstinence only model of sex education or one that might name body parts and all the reasons to avoid sex.
This lack of real sexual education takes a toll on our kids, teen pregnancy rates in the US are twice as high as in Canada and England and nine times as high as Japan or the Netherlands. One in 15 boys will father a child in his teens, and four in ten teen girls will become pregnant at least once. Added to these statistics which we can count, are the widespread incidence of child sex abuse, child sex trafficking, date rape and sexual harassment and violence against gay youth.
Many boys are first exposed to pornography around age 8. Most children who are savvy on the Internet frequently run into pornographic sites by accident. A recent MSNBC survey found that “Forty-two percent of Internet users age 10 to 17 surveyed said they had seen online pornography in the past year.” Knowing that boys are trying to figure out what it means to be male and sexual at this age is a great reason to make sure that there is a lively discussion in your home that is open and ongoing, so that they can balance what they might find on the internet with real information and values from you.
Talking to kids about sex starts with clarifying your own values and beliefs about sexuality and relationships. While our kids listen to us sometimes, they watch us constantly. The intimate relationships that you create in your own life are a living model for your kids as they grow up, which is probably the best single reason parents have for working hard at sustaining functional and healthy sexual relationships. Being honest about your relationships, both the successful and unsuccessful gives kids a chance to understand the work involved in intimate relationships. By staying in touch with the world your kids live in and how different it is from the world you grew up in, will help you understand and be able to talk about the cultural value systems that maybe competing with the values that you are sharing. The more that these differences can be explored in a non-judgmental way, the more that kids will be able to make their own good choices.
Just like adults, maybe even more than adults, kids need to know that they are normal when it comes to their changing sexual identities. Parents who recognize and validate the changes that happen in adolescence and puberty are hard on kids. Building their self esteem and expressing trust in them is the foundation for any other discussions that can take place. Kids who don’t trust themselves cannot really trust anyone else, so being an advocate for your child will allow them to come and ask questions of you. Treating your child with age appropriate respect cements the relationship between you.
One way that parents miss this opportunity most is when they don’t provide real information about sexuality for their kids. I have always believed that when my child was old enough to formulate a question, they are old enough to have a real answer. Avoiding difficult topics doesn’t make them go away, the questions just become bigger in the children’s minds. Using real names for sex organs and taking the opportunities that life provides, whether it is an off color remark on some teen programming of music lyrics, I always let my children know what it means and why it offends me. Misinformation and disinformation leave a big empty space that pornographic content is happy to fill. If you don’t know the answer to your child’s question, look for it together. This kind of openness and sharing will ensure that your child feels safe to come to you when they are caught in difficult choices.
Children actually want their parents to set limits for them. This is not the same as using scare tactics of threats. Reinforcing age appropriate rules and limits about sexual behavior helps adolescents to create their own boundaries to keep themselves safe. Don’t believe that because a child asks a sexual question that they are about to engage in a sexual act. Many times, kids are looking ahead and giving them information to face potentially harmful situations prepares them for times when they will have to rely on themselves. I highly recommend, Deborah Roffman’s Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense about Sex as a guide for both thinking and talking to your kids about sex.
Wendy Strgar is a loveologist who writes and lectures on Making Love Sustainable, a green philosophy of relationships which teaches the importance of valuing the renewable resources of love and family. Wendy helps couples tackle the questions and concerns of intimacy and relationships, providing honest answers and innovative advice. As her online presence continues to grow, Wendy has become a trusted and respected source of information on lasting and healthy relationships. “I feel like I am inventing a language to give intimacy back to the people, take the fear away and open a space for physical love to serve as the glue that holds relationships together.” Wendy lives in Eugene, Oregon with her husband, a psychiatrist, and their four children ages 11-20.