Oh, No. Not the Birds and the Bees…

Dear Mr. Dad: My son is approaching the age where we need to have “the talk.” My dad died when I was young, so my own introduction was nothing more than what I could find in books or from friends. I want to give him some guidance but I feel totally confused and embarrassed. What’s your advice?

A: You didn’t mention your son’s age, but if you’re like most parents, you’ve drastically underestimated the age at which “the talk” is appropriate. Because children are bombarded by sexual images from a very young age, parents need to control the message, which means you have to bring up the subject first. Otherwise, kids will do exactly what you did: turn to books, friends, and something you didn’t have when you were growing up: the Internet, which is great in many situations, but is also the biggest source of unreliable information in the world.

Under the best of circumstances, talking to a child about sex can make you—and your son—feel awkward and self-conscious. So how do you bring it up?

Actually, “how” is a good place to start since it’s just as important as “what.” If you make your discussion too clinical, dismiss it with jokes, mock, lecture him, or come across as embarrassed, disgusted, or negative, you’ll be sending your son two extremely dangerous messages: First, that you think sex is dirty, wrong, or insignificant. Second, that he can’t come to you to talk about serious issues.

Before you can start a discussion about sex, you need to find out what your child already knows, which means asking questions and listening carefully. You can then tailor your message. Sometimes, having a visual aid helps.

For preschoolers and kindergarteners, you could point out a pregnant woman and ask the child if he knows how the baby got in there. A basic discussion of the differences between male and female anatomy is important.

For early grade schoolers (say, up to seven or eight) point out a kid a few years older who has started puberty and ask your child if he understands the changes that come with adolescence. Now is when you might talk about the physical signs of sexual arousal and what actually happens during sex. That can be scary for some kids, so be sure to emphasize that all of this is completely natural and normal.

For tweens, you might use a typical TV or movie scene: Boy meets girl. They talk, they laugh. Then, cut to the next morning with the two of them in bed. Does your child understand what happened during the commercials? In addition to the physical part of sex, it’s important that your child understands the emotional component too—and the significant repercussions. Talk about pregnancy and the importance of protection. Talk about sexually transmitted diseases and steps that can help cut the risk of contracting something frightening and potentially deadly. You might also discuss things like, gulp, masturbation and oral sex. This isn’t going to be easy, but research shows that around 70 percent of tweens and teens think that oral sex is not “real” sex and isn’t that big a deal anyway. They’re wrong.

We’ll delve deeper into “the talk” in future columns, but don’t wait for me. Get these discussions going now—you’ll need to have more than one. It may make you uncomfortable, but kids who talk with their parents about sex are far more likely to be responsible, practice safe(r) sex, and have an easier time understanding and coping with the changes they’re undergoing.
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Sorry, I Forgot. Did You Say Something?

Dear Mr. Dad: My daughter is a really good kid, but she can’t seem to remember anything for more than five minutes. We constantly have to harp at her about things that should be habits, like brushing her teeth every morning. Is there something wrong with her? Why can’t she remember to do things like that on her own?

A: Unfortunately, you and your daughter aren’t living in the same world—at least not at the same time. In your world, people remember to brush their teeth (but do you always floss?). In hers, there are so many other things going on that it’s easy to get distracted. Things that seem critical to you may not even be on her radar at all. So expecting her to act like a mini adult is unrealistic.

What I’m getting at is that from what you’re describing, it’s pretty unlikely that there’s anything wrong with your daughter’s memory, other than losing track of time or having her priorities in a different order than yours. That said, there are a few steps you can take to keep her on track.

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Hey, Would You Please Close the Door?

Dear Mr. Dad. This is a little touchy but here goes. I have two sons ages 11 and 9. My oldest seems overly shy when it comes to changing clothes in front of other guys. My golfing buddy (whose kids are the same age as mine) and I occasionally take our boys to the country club pool. Because of pool chemicals, we insist that the boys shower and change clothes after swimming. The showers and locker room are communal. Even when it’s only our boys in the locker room they say my son showers in his swimsuit and then goes in a toilet stall to change. I talked with him in private and told him there’s nothing wrong with being naked in a locker room, but it hasn’t helped. Should I be concerned? My buddy thinks I should force him to change with the others to help him get over his shyness. Is he right?

A: Don’t listen to your buddy. Forcing your son to get naked in front of others will only make the situation worse.

Taking your son aside for a private conversation was great first step, but you’ll need to have another heart-to-heart (or two or three) to find out what he’s truly worried about. There are a lot of possibilities:

Is he shy or self-conscious? Some kids are just plain private. If he’s one of them, either let him keep doing his routine or have him shower at home. However, you might point out that taking a shower in his swimsuit might attract even more attention than just being nude. Also tell him that he’s in the majority: most people don’t like communal showers. In fact, it’s so common that many public schools have either installed private showers or banned showers altogether.

Is he different? Tweens are notoriously cruel to anyone who doesn’t seem normal (and their definition of “normal” can be pretty harsh). If your son is overweight or skinny, too tall or too thin, has straight hair or curly, he may fear that the other kids will make fun of him.

How mature is he? If your son is going through puberty and has spouted more chest and genital hair than other kids his age, he may feel embarrassed about his body. The same is true if he has less hair than the other guys. He needs to know that people mature at different ages and speeds. If you’re really worried, talk with his pediatrician.
Is he worried about hygiene? Locker rooms are breeding grounds for all sorts of fungi and bacteria. And showers—despite the fact that there’s a lot of soap around—aren’t much better. People aren’t supposed to spit or urinate in there, but we all know that plenty do.

Below the belt. Most males over the age of 10 feel the need to compare themselves with others. If your son is circumcised and many of the other kids aren’t—or vice versa—he may dread being different. If he’s ever had an erection in the shower (which is very, very common and can be triggered by something as simple as warm water running on his crotch), he may be mortified. And then there’s the daddy of all shower problems: size. This is another issue of people maturing at different rates. Chances are, your son is just fine in this area. You can reassure him that most of the other kids will be so worried about their own package that they won’t be paying any attention to his.

Regaining Your Parental Authority

Dear Mr. Dad: Our 12-year-old daughter does well in school but apparently hates us as parents. She never speaks kindly to us, refuses any kind of parental authority, and insists that “no one can tell me what to do.” She is very interested in boys and has been involved in “kissing sessions” on a school outing. We’re just about at the end of our rope. Is there anything we can do?

A: I can certainly see why this situation is upsetting you, and you’re absolutely right to be concerned. Teenagers are notoriously defiant of parental authority, but at twelve, your daughter is still a “tween,” far too young to be engaging in the kind of behavior you describe.
There are a few steps you should take right away, before her behavior becomes even more inappropriate, or starts posing a danger to her health and safety. First on the list is to ask the principal of her school why “kissing sessions” were allowed during a school outing. Where was the supervision? As far as I’m concerned, this is absolutely inexcusable and everyone involved should be held accountable.
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Intrusive friends

Dear Mr. Dad: One of my 11-year-old daughter’s friends spends a lot of time at our house. She often wants to tag along on activities when I’d prefer to spend the time bonding with my daughter. I suspect the other girl’s dad isn’t around much. Is there a way to include this friend in some things but carve out some father-daughter time too?

A: Congratulations on recognizing the importance of spending quality time with your daughter at this critical age of her development. Adolescence is a hormonal and social horror show, and the extreme emotional swings, self-doubt, physical changes, and peer pressure adjustments your daughter is going through will play havoc with her life—and yours.

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Does your child really need a cell phone?

Dear Mr. Dad: My daughter turns ten next week and has made it known that she expects, needs, yearns for, and won’t be able to live without a cell phone. “Everybody has one,” she says. Is she too young? I’m not even sure I know what the issues are, but it seems like opening a huge can of worms.

A: When I was a kid, the rules about cell phones were simple. Oh wait, we didn’t have cell phones at all, which explains why you’re not up on the issues. So let’s start with a few advantages.

  • Cell phones allow you and your kids to stay in touch. The additional safety and security that this provides is—at least from your perspective—the greatest benefit. Your daughter can call if she needs you, and you can call her if you need to know where she is and what she’s doing.
  • Many parents (mostly those with children older than your daughter) use cell phones as a small-scale introduction to adult responsibilities—everything from paying the bill and staying within monthly minutes to keeping it charged.

At the same time, there are some potential downsides. Whether they outweigh the benefits is your call.

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