How young is too young to start discussing explicit images with my kids?
Many parents agree - children require guidance on the topic of pornography. Philosophically, most assert that it should happen within the home first. Parents provide a moral context for formal education about sexual health, relationships, drugs, alcohol, and other risk-related behaviors. It makes good sense to educate their own children according to their own value system. It is good practice to have conversations that prepare children with information and skills, prior to experiences with a particular risk-related behavior.
Realistically though, parents often don’t talk about pornography until necessity forces their hand. And when they do talk about it, it is a reactive conversation, rather than a preparatory one.
Of course parents want to prepare their children. However, they are usually surprised prematurely by accidental exposure - catching their child viewing pornography, or finding it in the search history of their child’s phone. All the forethought and wordsmithing they imagined is hijacked by circumstance. The intentional, calm talk, ideally delivered on a hike, or over a cup of tea at the dining room table, is sabotaged by fear and alarm, spontaneously erupting as a punitive lecture. Even though it is coming from a place of love and concern, it is heard by the child as angry and disappointed. Shame and disconnection result. The next time the child accidentally stumbles on pornography, their parents are the last people they want to talk to.
In the next part of this three-part series we will provide an alternative to the knee-jerk porn talk. But first, it is important to determine when parents should talk to their kids about pornography so they don’t have their intentional conversations hijacked.
When should I start?
If there were a general rule for when to talk with kids about porn, it would universally be earlier than you think! According to Jesse Weinberger, who surveyed 70,000 children while researching for the book, The Boogeyman Exists; and He is in Your Child’s Back Pocket , pornography addiction begins around age 11. The porn industry makes it extremely easy to stumble on explicit images while doing homework or playing online games. All it takes is one curious click on a link. If parents don’t have the conversation, the porn industry will happily impose.
The problem for many parents is that they are optimistically naïve. They may read the statistics above, and think, “At least they don’t apply to my child.” Why? Because they are an invested parent? Because their child is within the minority that doesn’t have a smart phone? Because their child is sweet? Because their child tells them everything? There are a host of potential reasons.
But, here’s the problem. We teach our children what they can talk with us about and what they can't. The absence of conversation is as powerful an informer as the presence of conversation. If we have not deliberately established natural conversations about bodies, puberty, reproduction, sex and relationships, it is unlikely children will assume it’s okay to talk with their parents about sex. In fact, covertly, they've been conditioned not to talk about it.
Establishing an open dialogue early leads to authentic and vulnerable discussions in adolescence, a time when children begin to individuate and typically don’t share as much with parents. Positive family communication takes time to create, and a discussion about pornography is easier when it has a foundation of prior learning and practice.
So what does this foundation look like? The ongoing conversation about pornography begins as part of a multi-layered series. The series begins as soon as children are verbal. Anatomical language for body parts is used straight away. A vulva is distinguished from the vagina, the scrotum from the testes. Anatomical terms are used as a part of everyday life. Not formally and seriously, but playfully and fun. Just like the rest of the toddler’s world. As the child grows, body boundaries, consent (as a concept, not sexual), and appropriate touch is woven in - because some body parts deserve more respect than others.
To the surprise of many parents, once language is well established (typically around 4 years old), reproduction is a wonderful topic to talk about. The child will have many opportunities to engage with pregnant people and babies, and will naturally ask, “How does the baby get in there?” and, “How does it get out?”. Because they know what the body parts are, the explanation of some bodies having sperm, and other bodies having eggs is easily accepted. The sperm and egg coming together to make a baby can be told with an air of awe and curiosity. Some young children wonder how the sperm and egg actually get together, given they are in two different bodies. The idea of bodies fitting together like a human puzzle, so the sperm can swim like crazy to meet the egg, is fascinating. Body parts are not characterized as rude or dirty, so it is a wide-eyed, wonderful conversation. It is also not one talk. It becomes part of dynamic conversation that grows with the child.
When children are older, keeping in mind the average age of exposure to porn, perhaps around eight years old, children can be informed of the other reasons why people might connect their bodies. This can be easily accompanied by family values. Love, affection, pleasure, respect, intimacy, adulthood, marriage, whatever context and purpose sex has for the parent, can be gently communicated to the child. This conversation is the precursor to the porn talk. The positive, relational, and beautiful things about sex are shared before the cautionary things. The positive aspects of sex can be directly contrasted with the negative aspects of pornography. (Tune in next month for our next post in this series!)
The benefit of talking with young children about sex prior to puberty is that it is easier to separate the content from the individual. A blanket statement like “sex is for adults” can depersonalize the topic, which allows for more honest and open communication. The onset of puberty brings with it an awareness of the child’s sexuality due to a surge in hormones predominately made in the testes and ovaries. Talking about sex begins to feel more personal, which often makes it more uncomfortable for young people.
So back to the initial question - how young is too young to start discussing explicit images with my child? Too young in regards to this question is not really an age. A child is too young if the previous work about anatomy, language, boundaries, reproduction and sex, has not been done. To begin talking about explicit images of bodies and sexual behavior, which are often violent and graphic, prior to these positive foundations being laid, is too young. Talking about pornography with an 8-year-old is age appropriate when it is part of a multi-layered approach using nuanced language.
What if I haven’t started talking to my pre-teen?
When speaking with parents, they often say, “What if I haven’t laid the foundation? My child is already in middle school!” I won’t pretend the gap in communication of such important information doesn’t matter. It does. In this case the road of tricky conversations has not been paved by easier ones. The content isn’t normalized. There may be embarrassment and shame present that is absent when children can approach their parents with relative abandon.
Yet, despite a late entry into the dialogue, adolescents recognize the benefit of parental involvement in their sexual health and development, but they rarely let their parents know. It’s not comfortable or easy. Comfort and ease are important motivators for adolescents, so the parent will have to initiate most of the conversations until (if) normalization occurs.
Much of the learning about sexual health topics may have already been provided by school programs, peers, media, and probably pornography, perhaps with gaps in knowledge. As they are seeking to fill those gaps, in the absence of relevant information, kids turn to porn. So, what’s a parent to do? For the parent who has not yet had foundational conversations about bodies and relationships, they can enter the sexual health arena talking about porn, as long as the tone is not judgmental. The positive aspects of sex can still be contrasted with the negative aspects of porn. From there on out, it’s critical that the parent continue intentional engagement by leveraging ‘life prompts’ or ‘teachable moments’, being mindful to keep input brief, but frequent. It can be a challenge. Efforts are often met with disdain and opposition. However, the potential reward is enormous. Popular culture is perhaps the loudest voice when it comes to sex and porn, but parents still have the most influential ones.
So, if time is on your side, lay a firm foundation of positive, empowering information before the challenges of adolescence kick in. Irrespective of age, provide your children with information based on your family’s values so they have a reference point from which to counter the onslaught of a culture that is obsessed with sex and porn.
Weinberger, J. (2014). The Boogeyman Exists; and He is in Your Child’s Back Pocket. CreateSpace Publishing.