Why Having “the Talk” With Your Son Really Matters
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Family & Fatherhood

Why Having “the Talk” With Your Son Really Matters

Here’s how to do it without making everything worse

Father and young son have a talk outside
Getty Images

The world has changed, at least somewhat for the better. Back when you were a teen, finding pornography still took effort, and you still relied on adults for some sex intel. Today’s kids are just one Google search away from a terrifying education in pegging and edge play.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to have “the talk” with them. One out of 5 parents just avoid the topic entirely and hope for the best, according to a survey by Planned Parenthood and New York University’s Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health. Don’t be that dad. Here are some pointers to make it less mortifying.

Start early, and take it slow

It’s not a talk, as in singular; it’s talks. Not one lecture but many conversations. Ideally, the topic was broached in elementary school. But if that ship has sailed, there’s no time like the present.

You may think that kids don’t want any part of it, but researchers have actually asked them and they’re finding “the complete opposite,” says Amanda Holman, an associate professor of communication studies at Creighton University who researches difficult family conversations. Adolescents crave info from a trusted adult source, she says.

Not saying anything suggests that you don’t care, Holman cautions. Your goals and your kid’s goals are different — you want them to be safe, and they want information.

Avoid eye contact

The experts agree: Broach the subject while you’re not looking at each other. Take a walk together, do yard work, go for a drive, stare at a campfire — anything to avoid eye contact. This helps everyone open up; plus, your glances won’t be interpreted as accusatory glares and you’ll be spared his eyerolls.

Recruit support

Feel free to draft someone trusted — a cool older cousin or youngish aunt or uncle — to supplement your efforts. 

“In my studies I’ve found a lot of young people who say, ‘Oh, yeah, I had a cousin to talk to and that was great,’” says Katrina L. Pariera, an associate professor at George Washington University who researches sexual communication.

By the way, tell your wife or partner when you’re going to give the talk, so there's no surprise if your kid brings it up, Pariera suggests. And keep in mind that some boys may be more comfortable having Mom do the talking. 

Use misdirection

Don’t ask about their sex lives or porn habits; ask about their friends’. 

“They might not want to talk about their own experiences with you yet,” Pariera says. “Making it about this other person can open those conversations up.”

This is not Dad’s AMA

Saying “Ask me anything” will fizzle. Instead, you ask the questions — about what their friends are talking about, what they saw on TV, what they were taught in sex ed class. 

Don’t worry if there’s little response; it’ll get more productive down the line. “The fact that they’re not talking doesn't mean they’re not listening,” says Andrew P. Smiler, a therapist and author of Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy. 

Don’t let the “don’ts” dominate your discussions 

Those are: Don’t have sex. Don’t get anyone pregnant. Don’t get a disease. Of course, that’s a big part of these conversations, but going negative isn’t a positive.

Don’t ignore the elephants

Porn and sexting are facts of life now. About 1 in 4 teens have received an explicit photo, video or message, according to a JAMA Pediatrics study that was quick to note that this was becoming a “potentially normal” part of sexual development, when consensual.

Same with porn — assume your son has watched some, says Christine Carter, a sociologist and author of The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction. But make it clear to him that what he’s seeing is not real, from the bodies to the expressions to the techniques. 

“Sex in real life isn’t violent,” she says. Girls don’t want to be choked, and a “vast, vast, vast majority” don’t like anal sex.

Don’t forget pleasure

Some parents shy away from conversations about sex because they’re reluctant to acknowledge their child’s sexuality, Pariera notes. “We’re all born with it and need to face that reality and prepare for it.” 

Explain why love and sex dominate popular culture: because it’s fun and feels good. That’s what can make it hard to resist, why masturbation is OK and why various urges are to be expected and — more importantly — need to be handled responsibly.

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