How to Talk About Sex: Early, Often, and in Small Doses

We are sexual beings from the moment we are born. So, why is it so hard for so many parents to talk to our kids about sex and sexuality?

We are sexual beings from the moment we are born. So, why is it so hard for so many parents to talk to our kids about sex and sexuality? More importantly, why should we?
Experts say, when adolescents are asked to rank who influences their decisions around sex, parents consistently rank higher than friends, and they wish parents would talk to them more. It turns out, it’s best not to wait until puberty to start talking about sexuality.
According to Dr. Jenni Skyler, certified sex therapist, director of The Intimacy Institute, and the mother of two young children, opening the conversation early…

  • Allows you to give your kids accurate information
  • Lets your kids know you are a safe person to talk to about sex and their body
  • Helps prevent sexual abuse

While young children don’t necessarily need to know about sex, it’s important that parents talk to them early and often about sexuality – starting with honest answers to their questions about their bodies. One study shows that preschoolers demonstrate greater success learning the names of their genitals when the information is presented by a parent, versus a teacher.
If you’re not sure what to say or how to say it, here are two simple points to keep in mind.

Be comfortable talking (and listening)

According to Sandy Wurtele, Ph.D., and Feather Berkower, M.S.W., authors of “Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse”, it’s best to talk to kids about their bodies and sex often, honestly, and briefly. For example, if your preschooler asks how babies are made, instead of asking why he wants to know, respond with a straightforward, age-appropriate answer.
They also emphasize the importance of responding positively to kids’ questions. If, for example, your child says she doesn’t like the nanny, instead of saying “The nanny loves you!” and discouraging her from saying unkind things about the nanny, Wurtele and Berkower ask parents not to shut the conversation down. Instead, parents should express curiosity and ask follow-up questions, which may shed more light on the situation. For example:
Child: I don’t like the nanny.
Parent: Why not?
Child: Because she’s not nice.
Parent: What did she do that was was not nice?
Child: She touched my vulva and told me not to tell you.
Parent: I wish that hadn’t happened, but I’m so glad you told me.
If you are not comfortable talking about sex with your kids, know that you can change. Wurtele and Berkower recommend practicing with another adult, such as a partner or a friend. Janet Rosenzweig, author of “The Sex-Wise Parent”, suggests role-playing the hypothetical conversation you might have with your child.
While you should be open to any of your child’s questions, you do not have to give a biology lesson in answer. For example, when your preschooler asks you how a baby is born, a sufficient answer might sound like this: “Usually the baby comes out through the mom’s vagina, or sometimes a doctor makes a cut in the mom’s belly to take the baby out through her belly.”
If your child has follow-up questions, answer them honestly. But remember, you don’t have to give them a lot of information at once.

Use anatomical terms

From the day my daughter was born, I talked through diaper changes, explaining, “I need to get your vulva totally clean” in the same matter-of-fact way I spoke while getting her dressed. “First your right arm goes in the right sleeve. Now the left arm…”  
According to Berkower and Wurtele it is imperative that parents use the appropriate anatomical terms when talking about the genitals. This communicates that there is nothing shameful about our kids’ bodies. Rosenzweig cautions parents not to “skip from the knees to the belly button when naming the body parts.” When a kid uses the correct terms with a sexual predator, it is a signal that this child talks openly with an adult about his body and is not likely to keep abuse a secret, say Berkower and Wurtele.
Skyler recommends telling kids what their body parts are, where they are, and what they do. For example, if a boy asks what his penis is for, you can simply tell him, “Your penis is for urinating.” You don’t have to say more that, unless your child asks. If he follows up with a question like, “Why does it feel good when I touch my penis?” don’t panic. This doesn’t mean he’s asking you to explain the mechanics of sex. You can say something like, “Our body is built to enjoy touch, and certain body parts, like your penis, feel better to touch than other parts.”
Although girls’ genitals are harder to see, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discuss them. Generally, according to Skyler, it’s enough to start by telling preschool age girls, “You have different holes for different things. One is for pee, one is where a baby comes out, and one is for poop.” If your daughter expresses curiosity in learning which hole is which, Skyler suggests explaining things with the help of pictures, or even while sitting on the floor with a mirror, if you’re comfortable.
It is enough to say, “Your urethra is where your pee comes out. Your vagina is the hole a baby comes out. Your anus is where your poop comes out.” Similarly, while you can’t necessarily see the clitoris, when your daughter touches hers or asks about it, consider it a teachable moment, beginning by simply telling her what it’s called.
Skyler emphasized the importance of giving children information about their bodies in “bite-size” chunks, early and often, and that these conversations be “non-events.” In other words, do your best to treat your kids’ questions about their bodies as you would their questions about where clouds come from, or why they have to take a bath – honestly and comfortably, using age appropriate explanations that aren’t too detailed.
Of note, in the Netherlands, where parents commonly have these types of casual, age-appropriate conversations, the rate of teen pregnancy is far lower than it is here in the United States.
If you’re like me, the parent of preschooler and a toddler, worries like head lice, swimming pools, and trampolines take precedence over the prospects of sexual abuse, STDs, unwanted pregnancy, and rape. But the best way to deal with big-kid problems is to start early, when with the little-kid questions arise.
Think of it as beginning to wade into a heated pool now, rather than going head first off the high dive into freezing water later.  

Additional Resources

For parents of children ages 0-18


Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse

by Sandy K. Wurtele, Ph.D. and Feather Berkower, MSW


children Preschool to 2nd Grade



What Makes a Baby

by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smythe

For children (kindergarten to third grade)

It’s Not the Stork: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends

By Robbie H. Harris

We’ve selected these items because we want these great products to be on your radar! Parent Co. is an Amazon Affiliate Partner and we will earn a small share of revenue if you decide to purchase a product using one of these links. By supporting us through this program you are helping to keep the lights on and the banner ads off.

Navigating the Landmines of Emerging Sexuality

Consider these three ways to tweak your influence on kids’ developing sense of embodiment.

Part of health is sexual health. While there’s no one right way to express sexuality, it’s the seat of each person’s creative power, and creativity is what allows our species to problem-solve and thrive in a world of shifting circumstance.

It’s amazing so many parents fail to grasp this deep, obvious truth: our kids cannot grow to be their best selves (and certainly cannot have their best relationships) as long as we enable their sexual dysfunction.

What the hell am I talking about? In this case, by “sexual dysfunction” I’m not referring to the Viagra-type issue of certain organs failing to cooperate. I’m talking about when sexual drives translate into hurtful, manipulative, or predatory attitudes and actions, collectively perpetuating what’s called rape culture.

Rape culture commonly describes societies like ours where rape is prevalent, but it can also mean anywhere sexuality is weaponized as part of a quest for power. Rape is the obvious symptom, but not the only problem. People of any sex, gender or orientation perpetuate rape culture when they use sexuality to shame, control, or exploit others.

There is an organized effort to combat rape culture among students, but very little seems to change. Why do campus workshops on consent fail to solve the problem? Well, by the time kids raised in rape cultures reach college age, the violence has already been done. It may be subtle, accidental – but the damage is real: injury has been inflicted upon the young adult’s sense of value as an embodied being.

How does this happen? Well, modern American schools are phasing out recess, administering more tests, assigning more homework. The desire to move, play, and touch are treated as “inappropriate” signs of “restlessness.” Set schedules make it impossible for kids to honor (or even notice) their own bodily rhythms.

The constant message? Bodies are irrelevant. Ignore your body. Overpower your body. Shut down your senses and move inside your head.

You can imagine the damage of enforcing this message as a person’s body is changing, yet this is our cultural norm. Well-meaning parents, teachers, and coaches attempt to help kids growing into healthy, functional adults while also forcing them to halt or ignore involuntary physical developments and normal markers of maturation, like social and sexual curiosity. This generates shame, inner conflict, and teen angst.

When young sexual energy is stigmatized and repressed it can’t fully bloom – it comes out warped, politicized, embarrassed. Likewise, when intellectual reasoning is coerced prematurely, it’s not balanced with empathy and experience-based common sense. This combination turns adolescence into a landmine of mixed signals about how – and even whether – to grow up.

It’s no wonder that, upon graduating from an artificially dictated puberty, we get adults that aren’t very, well, mature.

Being out of sync with their own bodies interferes with their emotional intelligence. They become confused by their own urges and are compelled to rationalize them. Meanwhile, their empathy for other bodies and the emotions those bodies generate also becomes dulled. The concept of “other” remains an intellectual abstraction, something subject to mind games and rationalizations – the forerunners of physical violence.

These pseudo adults linger in a self-centered identity, never initiated into a collective one. Lacking the security to communicate honestly, they depend on alcohol and other gimmicks to navigate social risk.

This is a terrible backdrop for sexual awakening.

So how can we support kids in developing full health, including sexual and psycho-emotional health? Consider these three ways to tweak your influence on kids’ developing sense of embodiment:

Don’t shame discovery

It’s hard for adults to let kids take the lead on anything, but when it comes to their own bodies, we need to back off. You can still wipe boogers and tell them to take their hands out of their pants, but without humiliation or disgust. Teach them hygiene and manners without making them feel bad about asking questions or comparing parts.

Have “the talk” a lot

Don’t wait until your kid’s hormonal to have one big, awkward conversation. Take opportunities as they grow to explain consent, respect, privacy, and personal taste – topics that come up naturally through play and daily life. It’s important to present the concept of boundaries well before sexual development begins.

Don’t cut the cord

Mother Earth is our greater body, tying all bodies together. Don’t sever kids from nature. This goes for young adults, too. Let them get dirty, explore, and feel at home in their habitat, which will help them feel at home in their bodies. When physically grounded, they’re less likely to act out.

None of this will work without addressing your own hang-ups. Ask yourself how you belittle embodiment. By eating things that make you unwell? Bad-talking your figure? Hiding from cameras? Critiquing others for their weight, dating habits, or cosmetic choices?

Children notice these things, and consciously or not, they learn that physical selfhood is secondary at best, problematic at worst.

But it’s never too late to resolve to raise the whole child.

This Is Your Kid's Brain on Porn

These days, porn is never more than a few clicks away. And according to researchers, the effects on the brain are similar to the effects of drugs.

When my son was little, we liked to go see a family variety show that performed around town. One afternoon, I sat at my computer to check the performance schedule. I Googled “The Buddy Club,” and, a moment later, was up to my eyeballs in hairy, erect penises. I fumbled to close the browser while checking over my shoulder to see if my three-year-old had witnessed the display.  (He hadn’t.)

That incident came to mind years later, during a parent meeting of my son’s Jewish youth group, when a youth mentor warned us of the easy availability and extremity of online porn. One of the moms there recounted a disturbing anecdote: Her 13-year-old had seen an online porn video and later tearfully confided to his mom, “I can’t get it out of my head. I wish I could go back to the time when I’d never seen that.”

So began my quest to learn everything a mother never wanted to know about pornography: What is typically portrayed? How does watching porn affect adolescent boys? Is it addictive? Can I keep my son away from it?

If your idea of porn is naked women in lewd poses or close ups of people vigorously copulating, you’ll have to put aside such quaint notions. Today’s porn is hard core, hard, hard, hard. The industry’s diabolically effective marketing strategy involves baiting and hooking young viewers by feeding them a series of increasingly dehumanizing content, ratcheting up the shock quotient to forestall boredom.

By “dehumanizing,” I mean that the vast majority of heterosexual porn portrays women being violently brutalized and humiliated by one or more men in one or more orifices. Women are gagged, choked, struck, and verbally abused. They have cum squirted in their faces and large objects (made of flesh or other materials) shoved into their orifices. Close-up shots are careful to show the woman’s swollen, torn, and inflamed body parts.

In other words, when boys watch porn, they’re seeing women being sexually assaulted and tortured. Even relatively tame porn videos typically portray sex without intimacy, with a focus on ejaculation, speed, and unusually large breasts, buttocks, and penises. No wonder my son’s youth group friend was traumatized.

Most boys see porn for the first time at the age of 11 and, by the time they’re 18, many are consuming porn on a regular basis. Some of those young men become addicted to porn, though no one seems to know how many.

Girls watch porn, too. The recent spike in the incidence of teen girls waxing their pubic hair, undergoing breast augmentation, and mutilating their genitals with “labiaplasty” surgery has been blamed on porn.

Sociology professor Gail Dines, author of “Pornland”, calls pornography “the public health crisis of the digital age.” Her rhetoric isn’t overblown. According to HuffPo, porn sites get more traffic than Amazon, Twitter, and Netflix combined. A staggering one-third of all internet downloads are pornographic.

Research into the psycho-social effects and addictive qualities of porn is just beginning to catch up with the magnitude of the crisis. A slew of studies link porn consumption with infidelity, job loss, and erectile dysfunction. Young men profiled in Time’s recent cover story on porn describe their experience in similar terms – they got hooked young, and their compulsive use of porn led to sexual dysfunction, shame, and, later, withdrawal symptoms such as depression, headaches, and insomnia.

According to Gary Lynch, a neurobiological psychiatrist at the University of California at Irvine, the viewing of a single pornographic image can immediately alter brain structure. Many researchers corroborate Lynch, among them University of Texas neurosurgeon Don Hilton, who testified at a congressional briefing on pornography in January 2015.

Hilton characterizes pornography as a readily available drug that produces an addictive neurochemical trap and notes that brain imaging of porn addicts shows shrinkage in the brain’s reward and control centers akin to that of drug addicts.

Cambridge University addiction expert Valerie Voon puts it more succinctly: “Letting our children consume [porn] freely via the internet is like leaving heroin lying around the house.”

There are, to be sure, a handful of researchers who posit the innocuousness of porn, but they’re up against a growing consensus that porn is harmful and addictive.

Certified sex therapist Wendy Maltz has treated dozens of compulsive porn users at her practice in Eugene, Oregon, including growing numbers of young men who started using porn as teens but didn’t acknowledge they had a problem until they began suffering erectile dysfunction or depression in their 20s. Her porn clients are ashamed of themselves, often self-isolate, and experience poor self-esteem, insomnia, and anxiety.

Maltz, co-author of “The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography,” says that porn was the first sexual experience of many of her clients. Instead of stealing kisses under the bleachers, these young men are masturbating in front of screens. “Porn railroads their sexuality,” she says. “They don’t realize they’re forfeiting control to this industry and giving up something very precious – love-based intimacy and erotic imagination.”

A little-noticed Salon essay by novelist Mark Slouka echoes Maltz’s lament. Slouka contrasts the experience of cyberporn with the experience of lovemaking. He likens online porn to a “million-room whorehouse that offers a 24/7 smorgasbord of pre-packaged sexual fantasies that colonize the mind. In Slouka’s experience, the price porn users pay is the loss of imagination, accountability, and agency. They become an “army of unmanned drones, piloting our libido through the ether.”

Maltz’s clinical experience bears out what Slouka intuited and researchers have found – that porn serves up a powerful cocktail of feel-good neurotransmitters and adrenaline and that this blend of novelty, stimulation, and pleasure amps up what’s already a powerful, feel-good, biological response to an irresistible intensity.

Kids whose brains are wired for novelty, excitement, and risk, are particularly susceptible. Gay youth, Maltz notes, may seek out porn because of the dearth of healthy images portraying same sex coupling, but, like straight youth, can become hooked.

To make matters worse, free porn is never more than a few mouse clicks or cell phone swipes away. Some kids seek out porn, others come across it accidentally while Googling seemingly innocent terms such as “panda movies,” “bravo teens,” and, my personal favorite, “”

Age-appropriate curiosity can land a young child searching for words like “boobs” or “butt” on some highly inappropriate sites. A colleague of Maltz’s once treated an eight-year-old boy who got shocked, then hooked, when his search for butt images delivered images of double penetration anal sex.

Maltz reminds parents that all kids are naturally curious about sex and counsels them to make sure their kids get authentic sexual education before porn becomes their teacher. Some of Maltz’s clients don’t even know they can have an orgasm without porn while others demand that their first sexual partners act out scenes they saw in a video.

If your child does get exposed, Maltz advises staying calm and not lashing out or blaming your child. Educate yourself about why porn is harmful and share this information with your child. Validate your child’s curiosity, engage in honest, non-judgmental communication, and, if needed, seek professional help.

Parental filters on devices can help protect younger children, but most seem to figure out how to disable the filter. Eventually, they’ll see porn, whether on their own device or a friend’s. Dines’ organization offers additional resources for concerned parents.

During the time it took you to read this article, eight million people viewed porn. Was your child one of them?

How to Talk to Your Kids About Sex at Any Age

Let’s lay out some things research advises us to avoid when communicating with our children about their sexuality.

When it comes to talking about sex with our kids, most parents immediately assign it a headline like, “The Sex Talk: Causing Irrational Panic and Avoidance for Parents Everywhere Since the Beginning of Time.”

It’s no secret that the U.S. isn’t exactly known for its exemplary sex education programming, and many recent studies have shown the negative effects that stem from this. So how do we talk about sex with our kids when most of us have grown up in homes that either didn’t talk about sex at all, or talked about it in hushed tones and mumbled voices?

Regardless of opinion on public sex education, parents can feel empowered in their ability to create their own sex education in their own home. We have decades of research showing us the positive effects of talking about sex truthfully with our kids early on.

So let’s lay out some things research advises us to avoid when communicating with our children about their sexuality.

Don’t wait

Most parents avoid the sex talk with their children like the plague, only coming to the realization that, when they finally do decide to sit down with them, their children have already amassed loads of inaccurate information from far less desirable sources.

Sex is around every corner of our society, whether it’s on the cover of a women’s magazine, on a billboard, or on TV. Avoiding the topic is not preventing our child from learning about sex. It does, however, prevent them from learning accurate information about sex.

The Dutch are known for being at the forefront in talking with their children about sex. They begin having many, small, age appropriate conversations right out of the gate. The Netherlands reports higher rates of positive first sexual experiences, a significantly higher rate of birth control use, and a teen pregnancy rate that is five times lower than the U.S. 

It appears, as with any significant matter, denial is not our friend.

Parents of toddlers

You can begin to provide proper names for body parts and functions, as well as explaining which parts of our body are private and which are public. It is never too early to introduce good touch verses bad touch, and that no one ever touches our private parts besides our parents or doctors when we’re making sure they are healthy and safe. Conversations about safe touch should continue throughout every age and stage.

Parents of elementary-aged children

You can take cues from your child in moments when natural curiosity arises. Oftentimes, this occurs during bath time or when kids are exposed to another child’s genitals during a diaper change, etc.

When a child asks about body parts, tampons, or how babies are made, take it as a great opportunity to lay the basic groundwork of the egg and the sperm: “A woman has an egg, and a man has a sperm, and together they create a baby.” Keep it simple, short, and sweet.

Starting to have conversations about sexuality at this age lessens the embarrassment factor in spades. Because your child doesn’t yet have the ability to process much abstract thought, they will not automatically think of mom and dad in the context of sex. It’s also a great way for parents to ease their way into conversations about sex.

Parents of older elementary aged children

You can take advantage of many great resources to aid in your child’s understanding of their body and changing emotions during puberty. The child is now old enough to understand not only the connection between love and sex, but also how respect and affection enter into an intimate relationship.

Sex and gender roles in the media are a topic ripe for discussion as parents explain the differences between TV and real life. Unfortunately, in our world, if your child doesn’t hear about pornography from you, they will see it or hear of it elsewhere.

Parents of teens

You can create numerous opportunities to talk about sex, healthy boundaries, and intimacy. We need to be deliberate in countering the many confusing messages teens get from society, emphasizing that they, in fact, have rightful ownership of their own bodies and have full control of their sexual behaviors.

We must also provide language to help them understand their own sexual feelings and desires, recognizing their emotions as well as their desire for intimacy and relationships. 

Teens deserve to be empowered and informed about their own anatomy and how to be safe during sex. This does not mean you are condoning your child having sex. Conveying our own values and expectations and equipping our near-adults with information to keep them safe are not mutually exclusive.

Don’t beat around the bush

Creating alternative names for our body parts communicates to our children that there is something wrong or shameful about them. So avoid the good ol’ wee wee and hoo hoo that most of us grew up with.

Also, discussing all things sex and body related with openness and honesty demonstrates to our child that they can approach us to talk throughout their growth (as opposed to the sixth grader on the bus).

Find a way to be objective

Talking about sexuality with our child doesn’t need to be the emotionally laden time bomb most of us imagine. When parents sort our their own thoughts, views, and emotions regarding sex and intimacy in relation to their child, they will be able to enter into the conversation from a neutral and supportive stance.

This also means letting go of what we see, know, and have come to learn about sex through our own subjective lens and seeing things from a new and natural perspective. Human sexuality is a natural and healthy.

Avoid judgement and lectures

If you want to be your child’s source of information on sexuality, it’s best to bite your tongue and become a good listener. Give your child the space to talk without feeling judged or criticized.

They listen closely when we place harsh judgements and criticisms on others. Questions are key in these discussions, and parents are often surprised at the reasonable and healthy conclusions their children come to when given the opportunity.

Focus on do’s instead of dont’s

Most parents naturally trend toward discussing what not to do and often forget to place emphasis on what to do when it comes to sexuality and personal safety. If your child learns how to react when stuck in a dangerous or uncomfortable circumstance, they will be much more likely to remember it in the heat of the moment.

Explicitly stating our values on sex and intimacy, as well as the reasoning behind them, gives children the opportunity to think critically about the topic and increases the chance they internalize what they are taught.

Don’t waste the opportunity

Discussions about sexuality need not only be about anatomy, but can also incorporate a myriad of crucial social and emotional topics, including relationships, intimacy, self-expression, gender roles, health, and self respect, to name a few. Pretty powerful stuff, right?

Discussing sex is a springboard to teaching your child about healthy boundaries in relationships, what defines an intimate relationship, and how to take care of themselves both physically and emotionally.

Unsurprisingly, the Dutch begin a curriculum using these concepts as early as kindergarten. Children are shown images of physical affection, such as hugs, and asked why the people might be hugging. Teachers prompt them to think about how they feel when engaging in these same interactions with their favorite people.

Children respond with insightful reactions such as, “It makes me feel warm on the inside.” These lessons are designed to get kids talking and thinking about what kind of physical intimacy feels good, and what doesn’t.

Go boldly where most parents haven’t gone before

While society has lots of inaccurate and confusing messages to offer our children, parents have the power to offer more. Research indicates it’s time for us to grow up and start getting more comfortable with attitudes on sexuality.

You have more influence than you may realize. Teenage boys and girls alike report that parents are the most influential factor in their decisions about sex. Whether it seems like it or not, your child takes cues from you on how to view their own changing body. These exchanges form the lens through which they’ll interpret their intimate relationships.

So let’s get past mistaking openness for permissiveness. We can empower and inform our kids while still making our values and expectations clear.

Boys Will Be the Boys We Teach Them to Be

Our culture consistently fails to give boys the credit they deserve when it comes to love, sex, and relationships.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series about teens, sex, and social media. Read the entire series here

When we say, “boys will be boys,” what are we actually talking about?

That phrase, repeated on the playground when your toddler throws sand in his buddy’s face, or when your tween son discovers online porn, is a lazy excuse. What’s more: it’s harmful. It reinforces a set of low-standard stereotypes that perpetuate dangerously misogynistic values and cause our sons to be ill-equipped for the full human experience.

The truth is, boys will be the boys we teach them to be. 

One of the most important challenges we face as parents is to dismantle traditional notions of masculinity. We need to encourage our sons to experience and express a broad range of emotions, and to seek out loving partners and close friends. 

And as it turns out, that’s what they want.

A 2009 survey conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that 95% of respondents (1,200 boys, ages 15-22) would rather have sex with a girlfriend or someone he loves than with “a random girl.”

For the purposes of this discussion, can we just call that every boy? And can we let that sink in for a moment?

Your son would rather have sex with a girlfriend than with some random girl, which is the exact opposite of the common stereotype of teenage boys. Most sex ed curricula in the U.S. teach to the negative stereotype, talking to boys about erections and ejaculations instead of love and intimacy.

Our culture consistently fails to give boys the credit they deserve when it comes to love, sex, and relationships. We normalize behaviors and attitudes that are not, in fact, the norm. 

Illustration: Katrina Weigand

Stay Connected

If all these boys are longing for intimate relationships, why aren’t they talking about it? Why don’t we know about this?

The answer, says Amy Schalet, associate professor of sociology at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, may lie with our cultural tendency to “dichotomize… We put all the love side of things on the girls and the lust side on boys.” 

This, in turn, informs a lifetime of education — formal and informal, conscious and unconscious – that leads our boys to internalize a fairly specific set of expectations; expectations that I would argue are actually limitations, and can have a dramatic impact on how your son carries himself in relationships and online.

Schalet, whose book, “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex,” explores differences between American and Dutch attitudes towards adolescent sexuality, explains that American parents tend to let sex “become a wedge in (parent-child) relationships that are often quite close, up until puberty.”

Conversely, if you’re “able to maintain that connectedness with your child,” – by remaining open and compassionate – “through this phase, then you can also have more influence and more control, ultimately,” says Schalet.

Say This, Not That 

There are several things you can do to counteract this pervasive programming. After all, the ways in which our children will perceive the world begin at the very beginning – with what we present to them as truths.

To that end, here are three of the most glaringly harmful yet incredibly common ideas we pass on to our sons about sex, sexuality, and generally how to be a boy, followed by a healthier alternative to each.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint, friends. So if you’re consciously implementing the healthier options and not seeing instant results (i.e. a son who wants to hear your thoughts on his latest girlfriend), have faith that your efforts will have an impact in the long run.

1 | Harmful: Be the aggressor.

This lesson is often delivered insidiously by way of these four words: “Act like a man.” Its analog stereotype would be the harmful message relayed to girls to be demure and submissive.

Professor Schalet says “there is research showing that men are more likely to embrace rigid stereotypes and masculinity beliefs,” and that boys who do buy into the rigid norms are affected negatively “in terms of their own sexual health.”

The notion that boys are supposed to be the dominant force in sexual situations is bolstered by the porn industry.

This matters because, as I wrote in my first piece in this series, boys are increasingly turning to porn as their de facto source of sex ed. The behaviors and attitudes learned in this sphere can eventually leak into decisions your son is making in his interpersonal relationships and, perhaps more easily with the option of anonymity, into his online behavior (pressuring girls for nude photos or sharing photos without consent, for example).

Helpful:  Be the lover.

Illustration: Katrina Weigand

Boys are naturally loving, as humans are naturally loving. We’re born craving touch and intimacy. How terribly sad is it, then, that we teach against this instinct when we pressure boys to “toughen up.”

Teach your son (nephew/grandson/friend’s son) that it is okay to want love. Schalet discovered in her research that many boys don’t know that, like them, their peers are longing for intimate relationships, too. “This is true across socioeconomics, across racial differences. There is a relational interest. Yet, (boys) don’t realize this is normal. They don’t realize that other boys feel this way,” she says.

Let your son know from the earliest stage possible that all boys want to have close friends and, eventually, loving romantic partners. We have to get this message out to our sons, because it’s not the one they’re hearing from their peers, pop culture, mainstream media, or even their sex ed class at school.

And not for nothing, when it comes to sex, being a lover means paying attention to the needs of your partner. It means empathy.

Spell out, in no uncertain terms, that girls have physical desires and preferences, too. (Imagine if your son could be the partner who helps a young girl realize this?) Boys should be encouraged to ask questions and to explore the sexual realm with their partner, and to take responsibility for doing so with at least one contraceptive measure in place.

2 | Harmful: Anger is okay. Sadness is not.

Boys are told in a multitude of ways that certain emotions are coded as feminine or “girly” and should be avoided at all costs, lest your manliness be questioned. So when a relationship ends, or in the case of unrequited love, boys are compelled to express their sadness as anger or hatred. They might even be driven to extreme lengths, such as revenge porn.

None of these behaviors should be excused, but parents must work to understand that everything is connected. When you told your kid to “man up” on the football field, he internalized that and will apply the message to almost any situation that feels painful. Break-ups are painful. Rejection is painful.

Helpful: Love hurts.

Tell your son that loss is sometimes part of loving someone, says Schalet. “And that it’s also part of the human experience. You’re allowed to be sad when something ends that you wanted to have continue,” she offers.

This message is helpful on multiple fronts. First, it validates the feelings your son was experiencing to begin with – feelings of young love that adults are so quick to dismiss. Schalet found that Dutch parents are much more open to the idea that their teens have been or are in love with their respective partners.

“It’s not that (Dutch parents) believe that the feelings that a 12-year-old has are the same as the feelings that a 30-year-old has, but they still recognize that, even at very early ages, people can be deeply moved by other people and attracted to them and care about them.”

“What is to be gained by saying that’s not love?” Schalet questions.

What, indeed. Certainly not your child’s trust. People at every age, of every sex, just want their feelings to be validated.

Secondly, allowing your son to experience and express the full range of emotions when it comes to young love helps reinforce the idea that the girl is worthy of his sadness. This supports the notion that women are to be respected, even when things don’t turn out the way you hoped, and never violated.

3 | Harmful: Girls prefer the strong, silent type.

The strong, silent guy is just a boy who never learned how to communicate. And who can blame him? He was told early on, in one way or another, that boys don’t do the talking thing so much. Boys hang out in man caves and silently play video games. Boys grunt while girls chatter on endlessly about nothing at all.

“American parents normalize that boys don’t want to talk. That may or may not be true, but how do you respond to it?” asks Schalet.

Helpful: Let’s talk… often.

While it’s completely fair to expect that your son may not always want to chat with you about the events of his day or his current relationship status, you don’t have to accept it. Schalet spoke to one Dutch mom who sits down next to her teen son’s bed every evening and asks about his day. The conversation may be one-sided at times, but she follows through with the ritual regardless.

[su_note note_color=”#FFE0AB”]

Schalet suggests asking questions like these:

  • Is there anyone special in your life these days?
  • Are there examples of people you see dating where you really feel it’s working out?
  • What do you see as some of the problems couples are having?
  • Have you ever been in love?[/su_note]

Relating with your teen son on this level, about love and relationships instead of just the classic “Sex Talk,” provides him with a forum in which to practice his own communication skills. Schalet says research has shown that “girls get to practice being intimate very early because their friendships tend to take on a more talking, sharing quality.”

Most friendships between young boys, on the other hand, are centered around activities.

“What that means, and this is really fascinating, is that boys often enter into romantic relationships less skilled at doing the kinds of things that they are just as eager to do,” but haven’t had as much practice as their female counterparts, she explains.

You can be the best sex ed teacher

I believe that when we all decided to become parents, we entered into an implicit agreement that we would do our best to improve the world by raising good people.

Will changing the way you talk to your son about sex, love, and relationships actually change the world? I don’t know. But in a culture that is still heavily male-dominated, it’s a damn good place to start.

More importantly, your son needs this. He may not be able to express to you how badly he wants your guidance, but in that National Campaign survey, 61% of 15-18-year-old boys said that their parents had “a lot/some” influence regarding their decisions about sex.

Having the one Big Talk doesn’t work. Yes, you still need to tell him about birth control and sexually transmitted infections and why he gets a boner. You also need to talk to him about respecting people, opening himself to love, and being responsible in his online interactions. You should tell him that you understand the impulse behind sexting, but that it’s not the best, most legal way for him to explore those desires.

And all of this should be spread out over the course of your boy’s childhood and adolescence, not thrust upon him the day he announces he’s got a girlfriend.

If this feels like a big ask, I get it. But you’ve already got a lot of the information you need. You know about sex. If your own sexual health isn’t where you’d like it to be, all the better. Take this opportunity to educate yourself and your partner, then share your knowledge with your son when it’s appropriate.

It’ll be one of the best time investments you’ll ever make, and it will go a long way toward holding up your end of that parent agreement.