Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Parenting Preparation: What To Do Before You Talk About Sexuality with Your Son

Parenting, Sexuality, Romantic RelationshipsAndrew Smiler

Talking to your son about sexuality is important for helping him become a more knowledgeable, mature, and responsible teen. And whether you dread it or are excited to see this phase of his development, his growth is inevitable.

Talking to your son about sexuality is important for helping him become a more knowledgeable, mature, and responsible teen.

We know that more than 90% of American high school seniors have dated and kissed someone, and nearly 2/3rds have had sex. Group- and school-based “dating” for boy-girl couples, along with the requisite kissing, often starts in grades 7-8, ages 12-14. One-on-one dating often starts during grades 9-10, ages 14-16. First sex most frequently happens at age 16, although 15 and 17 are quite common. Boys who prefer boys often report older ages of first dating and first kiss than their heterosexual peers, but first sex (oral or anal) still occurs around 16.

It’s not surprising that most of us find it difficult to talk to our kids about dating or sex. After all, most of us were left to figure it out on our own with little parental input. If your goal is to do a better job raising your kids than your parents did with you, sexuality is one place where it’s easy to raise the standard.

And even though most of us have talked about dating, hookups, and sexual behaviors extensively with our friends through the years, those friend to friend conversations seem very different than the parent to son conversations we intend to have.

As you prepare to talk to your child, there are a few basics you need to know and a few things you need to decide; ideally, those decisions will be made with your co-parent. These recommendations apply whether your son is interested in girls, boys, or both. Strictly speaking, everything in this column applies to daughters as well as sons (but it’s a little easier to write for a specific gender than to try to keep it gender-neutral).

The Basics

Make it an ongoing conversation. Sexuality, which includes all aspects of attraction, dating, and sexual behavior, is very complex and has lots of different components. You can’t do it all in a single conversation, so don’t try. Besides, it’s a part of your son’s life that you’ll probably want to hear about periodically as he goes through his teens and 20s, so start it off as an open conversation and not a one-time Talk.

Your relationship with him is more important than your gender. The vast majority of boys tell researchers they want to talk about sex with someone they feel comfortable with and trust, which usually means someone who has talked to them about difficult topics before. That person’s gender is usually a secondary consideration.

If your goal is to do a better job raising your kids than your parents did with you, sexuality is one place where it’s easy to raise the standard.

You’ll have a combination of monologues and discussions. There are times when you’ll just need to tell him some stuff because you need to know he’s heard it from you, like the importance of using condoms and other forms birth control. At other times, it’ll really be a discussion, like when the focus is on how to choose a dating or sexual partner and how he’ll know when he’s ready to have sex (ever or with a specific partner). It’ll help if you start by letting him know if it’s time for lecture or discussion.

The Advanced Stuff

I recommend you talk through—and possibly practice—these conversations with another adult. In an ideal world, that’d be your son’s other parent, but it doesn’t have to be. The practice works best if the other person knows your son and can make some reasonable guesses about how he’ll respond, but the real point is to give you an opportunity to practice out loud.

Leave your embarrassment behind. This may be the hardest part. Eye contact is good but it’s not always required. Be as specific as possible and use correct terms, like penis and vagina. The goal is to make sure he understands, so nicknames and generalities may create confusion.

Decide how much of your history you’re willing to share. Your son may—or may not—have any inkling of how many folks you dated or had sex with. That depends not only on you, but your family members, your longtime friends, your reputation, and your scrapbooks. He doesn’t need your full sexual history and you get to decide where you want to set those boundaries. Don’t lie, but remember that you can always say “I’m not ready to discuss that with you.” You can also ask why he wants to know or what difference it would make to him. The specifics he’s most likely to ask about are the age you lost your virginity, the number of partners you’ve had, and how you knew you were ready. For age, I recommend honesty, possibly accompanied by a wish for younger or older (and why). For number of partners, non-specific honesty may be better; give him a range for total number of partners (e.g., 6-10) or the average number of partners per year from first sex to marriage or his birth.

Focus on sexuality, not just sex. Sexuality is about attraction, relationships, and sexual behaviors, as well as the values and beliefs related to those things. Sex is about putting a penis in someone else’s body (mouth, vagina, or anus, as the case may be). Your son needs to know that there’s a range of sexual behaviors, starting with kissing and holding hands, and that sexual behaviors are usually—but not always—performed with a dating partner. Talk about the benefits and challenges of relationships and whether or not you believe relationships are necessary for sexual activity.

Enter with clear(ish) values. Your son needs to know your values so that he has something to rest his own values on. In an ideal world, your—and your son’s—sexual values will be an extension of the other values you’re teaching him regarding respect, care for others, and the like. Remember that values are both practical and aspirational and that neither of you may live up to all of them all of the time. None of us have always been completely respectful of our partners, but most of us try to be.

Enter with clear ages. Tell your son the ages at which you think it’s ok for him to start dating and for him to start having sex. The ages you choose should be based on your values and your son’s maturity level. I favor the averages here and I don’t know your son, so I’ll recommend grade 7 for group dating, grade 9 for one on one dating, and age 16 for first sex.

I also recommend that you start having these conversations when your son is 10 years old and continue throughout his teen years, adjusting the content as needed for his age, maturity, and experience.

I recommend age 10 because it’s about the time when kids start having first crushes. It’s also an age when his television and movie preferences are likely to include at least some discussion of dating and romance. And it’ll give him a grounding in the topic before he’s likely to start watching porn; about 1 in 3 American boys reports voluntarily watching porn by age 14, often saying they’re choosing it because they want to learn about sex.

- image by Sharon Mollerus/flickr