Ask Mary Jo
Right time to talk about porn
Q.Our son is only 12, and I’m freaking out. We found evidence that he’d been watching pornography on his computer. My husband is calmer, and he suggested I write to you to get your perspective. It’s actually a family computer, and it’s in the kitchen so I’m appalled that he would pull up something like that. Especially since his little sister is only 8 and she’s on that computer at times. My husband says he’s just curious and a lot of boys his age do this. I’m disgusted. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to disrespect my husband’s opinion, and I don’t want to overreact. Help!
Mary Jo’s response:
Parenting can be challenging. The situation you’re facing is a common one. You’re not alone. Research in the respected periodical Pediatrics showed that over 40 percent of Internet users ages 10 to 17 have viewed pornography. Initiation is typically between 10 and 13. In my private practice I see many shocked parents who come to me after finding their pre-teenage children accessing pornography. Smartphone technology makes watching pornography incredibly easy. Raising children when surrounded by technologic temptation takes parental diligence to a new level. I’m thrilled that you took a step back, communicated with your husband, and wrote to me.
I also hear your angst; in your heart your son is a small boy. In his mind, he’s growing to be a teen. Childhood is truncated in our current age – it seems to grow shorter yearly. The types of questions I now receive from fifth- and sixth-grade children were asked by ninth- and 10th-graders when I started the Teen Outreach 25 years ago. We must parent in the culture in which we live, and our current culture moves at a lightning pace. Parents should not compromise their values, but awareness of the pressure young people face will help.
I think your husband is correct. Your son is curious. Decades ago, he may have tried to look at a magazine. One of my long-ago seventh-grade classmates compiled “dirty” words into a small notebook and regaled us with dictionary definitions of “intercourse” and “genitals.” Curiosity is normal. Take this opportunity to open the door to communication about sexuality. As difficult as it may be to begin this conversation, over 35 years of teaching has shown me the positive outcomes that can come from parent/youth educational experiences. Pornography shouldn’t be sexuality education. Here are some ways to diffuse the situation and educate:
1. Approach your conversation positively – Your son may feel ashamed. Reducing shame doesn’t mean you endorse his behavior, but it does mean that you clarify that your son’s curiosity is normal, and that he is not perverted for that curiosity or for being aroused by sexual images. Ultimately you want him to continue this conversation with you. Normalizing his curiosity and explaining that sexual feelings are normal may keep him talking; shaming him will shut down a connection that is vital as he moves into adolescence.
2. Teach your son why pornography isn’t real – Have a frank conversation about sex and the fact that pornography is a business. Real people do not react like the actors and actresses in porn. Pornography often exploits women and can condone humiliation. Discuss legal implications of child pornography. Explain sexting.
3. Explain why viewing pornography at his age can affect him – When I teach I explain that our brains are amazing ... like sponges, they retain what we see. Most 12-year-olds can relate to the push me/pull me of watching horror films. In the theater, the images may be acceptable, but alone at night they can terrify. Once exposed, the pictures are retained. Young people are able to access pornographic videos and images that are degrading. I explain that I hope these young people are in healthy relationships someday. When that day arrives, the images they’ve viewed can color their connections with their partners. In other words, don’t “download” videos that may “stream” through your mind later.
4. Stress that his body and his brain are developing – Tell him that you’re not worried about him becoming a sexually aware man. You’re not putting him down or denying his changing body. The truth is that his developing brain needs exposure to positive images.
5. Ask him what he’s seen and if he has questions – When I receive questions that could only come from pornography, I find that most young people really want to talk about what they’ve seen. Often they’re frightened. He may want to talk with you, but have no way to bring up the topic without getting in trouble. Now that you’re aware you can help him process what he’s seen. Ask “Did you see anything you didn’t understand?” and “Was there anything that was scary?” Be courageous. He needs you.
6. Explain your values, set boundaries for the future and enforce them consistently – You’ve supported him, answered his questions, reduced shame and explained your values. Now review your rules. Set parental controls. Be cautious of smartphone use. A number of parents have brought their children to me after one young person on a school bus showed everyone pornography from a phone. Be aware. Be open and an askable parent, but don’t compromise your values.
Finally, explain his responsibility to his little sister. He is her role model. He needs to embrace that role and develop his character. Help him find his own moral compass.
I’ve taught a class for parents and young people called “What’s Up as You Grow Up?” since 1984. At my most recent class for boys and their parents, a father wrote, “I appreciated the openness of the class and the energy and enthusiasm it was delivered with. I feel more confident about my job as a parent and my role going forward.” Registering is easy. Simply call Linda Adkins at our office (724-222-2311).
Peer Educator response:
We think it is very natural and common for young people (both male and female) your son’s age to be curious and want to look at pornography. It’s a good time to talk with your son about sex and answer any questions he might have. He also needs to be considerate of his little sibling.