More decades ago than I’d like to admit, when I was entering that confusing and awkward stage called puberty, I snuck a couple of well-worn books out of my church’s lending library — one about boys, one about girls.
Aimed at teaching preteens about their developing bodies, the books included lifelike drawings of — gasp! — male and female reproductive organs, along with words meant to reassure kids about the changes they were about to go through. Little did I know how tame such materials would seem compared with what lay in the future — the Internet and cable television, just to name two.
Fast-forward to today’s sexually charged society full of R-rated movies, suggestive songs and music videos, and PDA in school hallways. With kids getting early exposure to such influences, experts say it’s crucial for parents to step in earlier than they might think.
“By the time kids are going to middle school, they’ve already been exposed to a lot of misinformation,” said Randal Pearson, M.D., a pediatrician with Norton Children’s Hospital Medical Associates – Brownsboro.
And if maturing kids base sexual decisions on bad information, “there’s great harm in that,” Dr. Pearson said. “It can lead to poor relationships, sexual hang-ups and difficulties with intimacy down the road.”
If you’re a parent thinking your son is too young for this, think again. Puberty is arriving earlier these days. A 2012 study of U.S. boys found white and Hispanic boys were entering puberty at an average age of 10, and African-American boys at 9. That’s up to two years earlier than decades ago. (The study couldn’t determine why.)
Today’s kids also can be easily exposed to movies (and there have been many) focusing on boys seeking their first sexual conquest. They need to know those on-screen teens are neither role models nor the norm, according to Dr. Pearson. In fact, one of his key messages is that not every boy experiences puberty at the same time or in the same way — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Without that knowledge, Dr. Pearson said, boys comparing themselves to friends may think there’s something wrong.
Parents need to offer advice but often find it uncomfortable to talk about sex. Some just assume their sons will figure it all out on their own. But the longer you wait, the harder it becomes. Younger kids actually can be easier to talk to because they’re open and don’t yet have preconceived notions about sexuality.
“If you can start early, it’s actually less uncomfortable for parents,” Dr. Pearson said.
Parents may think if they teach their son about sex, it may prod him to earlier activity. But the opposite is true: When boys turn to friends or other sources, the resulting misinformation may actually lead them to earlier sexual encounters.
Before your son reaches his teens, teach him the correct names and functions of male and female sex organs, how puberty changes the body and the risk of pregnancy or getting sexually transmitted infections. These talks should go on over time and anytime your son wants to talk. Avoid postponing or putting off these conversations because it’s not a good time for you. Here are some conversation starters:
- You’re going to start seeing some changes “down there.” Your penis is going to get bigger and you might see some bumps on it. Your testicles will grow too, and one might become lower than the other. That’s normal. You’ll also start seeing pubic hairs growing around your penis and testicles. You will start growing hair in your armpits, on your chest and all over your body too.
- That crackling in your voice is probably embarrassing for you, but it’s normal and won’t last forever. It’s caused by your voice box and vocal chords growing. Next your voice will become deeper.
- You can’t control wet dreams (nocturnal emissions) and involuntary erections. They are a normal part of growing up and will become less frequent as you get older. They are nothing to be ashamed of.
- It’s normal to feel like touching yourself. It’s called masturbation, and it’s a normal and harmless urge, as long as it is done in private. It can help you relieve sexual urge without having sex.
- I want you to understand how sex works and how a girl gets pregnant. This will be a longer conversation and should include the facts about using birth control and needing to protect yourself against sexually transmitted diseases — every time, no matter what.
During this time, also be sensitive to your son’s need for privacy. Preteens often become more modest while bathing or showering and changing their clothes. His interest in grooming and appearance may increase as well. Be respectful and avoid good-natured teasing. Also respect your child’s wish for privacy, not only as it relates to his changing body but in other areas as well, such as knocking before entering his room.