Ahhh, the ‘sex talk’ – it’s seen as an essential rite of passage, both for children and their parents, but did you know that it’s often the parents who feel the most awkward about it?
In her new book ‘Raising Feminist Boys,’ clinical psychologist, parenting expert and international author Bobbie Wegner focuses on the need for parents to become more comfortable talking about sex. She identifies the problematic approach of ‘default parenting’ – where parents choose to either ‘react or reenact’ the way they were brought up – and discusses the dangers that can arise without open and interactive discourse between parents and their kids.
From the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude to determining the ‘right age’ for the sex talk, we sat down with Bobbie to talk about some of the most important learnings from her new book.
Can you tell us how the idea for your book, ‘Raising Feminist Boys,’ first came about?
I woke up to the need for raising feminist boys in the fall of 2017, near the beginning of the #MeToo movement. My then-six-year-old son, Tyler, was lying on the kitchen floor playing Minecraft. I stood at the stove cooking dinner as NPR played in the background. It was a very typical scene in our home.
The radio host was discussing the fallout from allegations that Harvey Weinstein had sexually harassed and assaulted many women, including high profile actresses. He had been accused of rape and other types of sexual assault, including massaging women and forcing them to look at him naked. When women resisted, he allegedly made threats that ranged from ruining their careers to death. Around the same time, many other high-profile men were being accused of similar behavior. The NPR host was bewildered at the depth and breadth of the revelations that were pouring out each day. She explored how and why we, as a society, create an environment where we tolerate sexual violence.
Although I was cooking, I was completely absorbed in the horror and absurdity of what I was hearing. As I considered a culture in which one out of every five women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, I realized the stats told me that one to two of my daughter’s preschool classmates could be a victim of rape one day!
I knew all too well about the deep trauma that sexual violence causes from my work as a clinical psychologist. My mind wrestled with how a system could so deeply protect sexual predators like Weinstein and others. Every day there had been news of another presumed ‘good guy’ being a pervert. I had even wondered aloud to my husband, “Is this just how guys are wired? How else could men get away with this for decades?”
My mind was blown.
Then I remembered that my little guy, with very big ears, was in the room. I dropped the spoon and hustled to turn off the radio when a realization grabbed me – actually, it was a moment of consciousness.
“We are sheltering our developing boys,” I thought.
When things are sad, sexual, or uncomfortable, we rush to shield our children in the name of protection, yet who will potentially be hurt by my child’s naiveté: A girl in high school? My son himself? Whenever something difficult comes up, we rush to turn off the news or scoot the kids out of the room, and they end up missing out on important conversations as a result.
This thought made me wonder what Harvey’s mother had done. What Matt Lauer’s father had said. Did Charlie Rose’s caregiver ever talk about these things? D
espite messaging from the broader culture, what did (or didn’t) their parents say when they were little? Think back: Did your caregivers say anything about sexual responsibility when you were six, seven, or eight? If they had said something, would it have changed anything for you? Boys aren’t born rapists. So how did guys like these go from being a kid like my loving son to being accused perpetrators? I was suddenly curious about what happened in the time and space in between.
Currently, at nine and eleven years old, my sons Tyler and Cam are in the middle of their cognitive and moral development. As you’ll learn in my book, what I say to them actually changes their brain development and will stick with them for a lifetime. The door is wide open, for better or worse; I’ve got a front-row seat in my boys’ prefrontal cortex. My voice matters now, it matters a lot, and in that moment in the kitchen it was clear to me what message I wanted my sons to hear.
So I stepped back to the stove and let the radio play on. I wrung my hands and quietly formulated what to say. Once I found the courage, I said, “Hey, Ty, are you listening to this? This really famous movie guy was saying inappropriate things and touching women when they didn’t want to be touched. And now he’s in big trouble and there’s a good chance he’s going to jail.”
Then we sat through a long silence. Images of Tyler on the playground butchering the story to his friends flashed before my eyes. I imagined parents calling me and asking, “What the hell are you telling your kid? What the hell is your kid telling my kid?” Finally, Ty popped his head up and I saw that he wasn’t shocked or traumatized. He very matter-of-factly said, “What? Doing that’s illegal? Didn’t Trump do that?” I was floored.
I didn’t write this book to make political statements, but I am writing to address the messaging in our communities. In that moment with my son, it became crystal clear to me that I needed to push through the discomfort to bring these topics to the forefront of conversations with my little boys – our future men. So I said to Ty, “Yeah, Bud, you’re right. Trump did say and do inappropriate things, and that is not okay at all. In our family, we do not do that. Ever. Dad doesn’t do that. I don’t do that. And you are to never do that. Got it?”
“Yes, Mom,” he said before going back to the video game. Then he asked, “What’s for dinner?”
You talk a lot about ‘Default Parenting’. Can you explain a bit more about what that is, and how parents can identify when they’re doing it?
We all have a default parenting map. Just like when we drive without navigation, we use prior information we know to guide us – which way is north, familiar roads, etc. Parenting is not so different. None of us were parents before we had children so we pull from early experiences (like how we were raised) to inform how we parent. This happens both consciously and unconsciously. There are some parts of how we were raised that we want to include in how we parent, and there are other parts we want to leave behind. The best way to parent from a place of clarity and consciousness is to take time to think about how we want to parent, and come up with a plan.
Ask yourself: What are your top three parenting priorities (i.e., the top things you want to teach your kids), and come up with concrete ideas about how to achieve them. When we have a plan, we are less likely to default to the things we know from our childhood that we want to leave behind (like judgment, yelling, criticism etc). Nobody is perfect, and parenting is hard. But, the more consciousness we can bring to parenting, the more clarity and control we also bring.
Is there a ‘right age’ for parents to start talking to their children about sex? If so, when is it?
Sexual development begins in utero and continues through the entire human development, although we like to break this off and compartmentalize it into a private part of our lives we talk about sparingly and quietly. The sooner parents talk about sex, the better. It is not one conversation – it is many conversations over the course of time that often happen in small bouts with direct responses to questions you children pose. This does not mean talking “birds and bees” to babies, but it does mean using appropriate names for genitalia and moving toward conversations around sex and sexuality regularly and with openness. It means talking with preschoolers about where babies come from without shame. It is helping elementary kids understand things they see and hear online. My third grade son asked, “What does it mean to drop the soap in the shower?” and my first grade daughter asked, “What is a stripper?” (after hearing music on the radio). It is moving towards all of these questions with openness, candor, and empathy as they arise and grow with our kids. Speaking directly to these types of questions builds the relationship and trust, so that when our kids get to middle school and high school they know they can talk to you about how to have good, safe relationships with people. Research tells us that this is what our adolescents are lacking and wanting. The conversation starts early and happens over your child’s lifetime in a developmentally appropriate language they understand.
When might parents know that their child is ready to start learning about sex and sex-related topics?
You are the adult. Set the tone of openness and bring topics related to sex and sexuality to the surface. When you “go first”, it signals to your child that these conversations are ‘ok’ and allowed. This starts with being comfortable with naming genitalia for our littlest kids, not being ashamed when our toddlers and preschoolers are touching themselves publicly, and helping our middle schoolers understand their bodies in puberty. ‘Raising Feminist Boys’ puts these types of conversations in a developmental context so parents can know what language to use and when. There are things to talk about regarding sex and sexuality from the time your child is a baby. Expect to build it into your parenting. Just like it is important to know some basic child development, human sexual development is a part of that too.
How can parents ensure their children cultivate a healthy attitude to sex?
When kids feel shame or guilt, they make their concerns private. The best way for parents to help cultivate a healthy attitude towards sex is to talk about it openly, directly, regularly, and without shame. When your child asks a question, answer honestly and without embarrassment (even if you have to fake it at first). Ask questions about what their peers are up to, watching, and doing. Lay off the advice giving, and take a curious perspective. Use the media as a talking point. Co-view TV shows and online content with your child. Get curious about what people are doing online and how they are making sense of it. Use media as a topic to discuss, not an opportunity to shame.Y our kids will come to you when they feel safe and not judged, and although many parents want to ‘teach’, park that approach here. Instead, get curious about their thoughts, feelings, and what they know. Send the message that you are there and present as an open, non-judging resource and help them make decisions – do not tell them what to do.
Why might some parents feel more hesitant to discuss sex than their children?
Many parents are hesitant to talk with their children about sex because the parents themselves feel awkward, not the kids. All of us bring our own baggage with childhood, and much of that is shame and judgment around sexuality. Remind yourself that young children have no context for sex and sexuality so the discomfort you feel is often from you. Push yourself to move towards these conversations as early as you can to both help your child understand that you are a resource and someone they can come to with questions, and to become comfortable yourself. It takes practice to realize and learn conversations around sex and sexuality can be connecting (dare I say, fun) and do not have to be the squeamish ones we remember from childhood.
In your opinion/research, which dangers can arise when parents don’t talk openly with their children about these kinds of topics?
Talking about sex and sexuality helps kids feel safer and gives them more information, while creating trust and comfort with the parents. Research tells us that kids who are well-informed, have sex later and make safer choices.
Moreover, kids want to know how to have a good, loving, safe relationship (aside from just sex), and need help understanding how to do that. Speaking directly with them about sex, relationships, and sexuality, have a lifelong impact. The quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our relationships. Teach our children how to have good relationships so that they can have good lives.
When sex and sexuality are not talked about with parents, kids seek information from other people – other kids, media, online. They end up piecing together bits of information that may or may not be true that ultimately shape their identity, morality, and sexual development. Parents might feel uncomfortable talking about pornography. Research tells us that kids are first exposed to porn somewhere between 9-11 years old. When what they see goes unchecked, it shapes how they see themselves, the other, sexuality, identity, and relationships. Much of what is portrayed in the media and porn, is unreal – which kids do not know. They need help sorting and processing what they see, and the impact it has on how they see themselves and other people.
What are the benefits of creating healthy conversations around sex, both for parents and for children?
There are many benefits for having early, continuining, and regular conversations with your children about sex and sexuality. Research tells us that kids want guidance around how to have close, connected, lasting relationships – and we aren’t giving it to them.
We also know that having direct conversations when kids feel seen, heard, and supported, helps them not only build trust in their relationship with us, it helps build trust and connection with other people. Kids have a need to feel safe and valued. When we join with them in their questions and learning, we build connections. This also helps them have strong relationships with other people too.
Parents who have honest and direct conversations with their kids about sex and sexuality, raise kids who often wait longer to have sex and are safer when they do.
Overall, remember that saying something is better than saying nothing – you can always come back to the conversation and correct something if it doesn’t feel right. Kids want and need these conversations, although they might pretend they don’t.
Keep in mind the fact that kids’ first exposure to porn is somewhere between 9 and 11 years old, and they are seeing lots of stuff before we think they are.
Raising kids now is different than when we were raised. With the advent of the internet and PornHub, kids have access to lots of sexualized information that shapes how they see themselves and others. They need help understanding reality from fantasy.