Raising boys to be men: Let’s talk about puberty

More decades ago than I’d like to acknowledge, 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 life-like 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 open smooching (and more) in school hallways. With kids getting early exposure to such influences, experts say it’s crucial for parents to step in with early input.

“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.

Stumped on the best way to broach the topic? Take a look at the American Academy of Pediatrics’ website HealthyChildren.org. It offers a wealth of information and guidance for both parents and children, such as:

— Boys’ concerns during puberty include their voice changing, involuntary erections and wet dreams — all normal occurrences, but jarring when they occur.

— 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, he should know 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.


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