We Need To Change The Way We Talk To Tween And Teen Boys

by Paige Millington
Mother and teenage boy

Truth time. Good things are happening in the way we raise our girls. As much as diet culture remains pervasive across every media our kids see, there is a growing campaign to fight it and teach our girls to love their bodies. We are talking to girls about sex, rather than pulling the blinds on the idea that they are or will be sexual beings who deserve to know how things work, how to protect themselves, and where the pleasure switches are. We are actively working to end the shame about periods, and encouraging our tween and teen girls to carry that tampon to the bathroom with pride! Because menstruation is not something girls should be embarrassed about.

All good stuff. And as a mom of a pre-adolescent girl, I am incredibly hopeful for her future, and look forward to the continued progress we as a society will make when it comes to raising confident girls who love themselves and believe they can do and be anything they dream.

However, one author says that for all the work we are doing to improve the world our girls are growing up in, we might be forgetting another important group of kids—our boys.

Boys who grow up with body image dysmorphia. Boys who grow up being told they should be one thing (masculine! tough! without emotion! loving sports!) when they may be none of those things. Boys who, like our girls, are just trying to find their way in a confusing world of mixed messages and unrealistic social media idols. And whose developing brains are flooded with a shit-ton more “information” (read: internet) than kids of previous generations ever had to deal with.

They need us too. They need us to campaign for their mental health and positive body image and emotional support and self-love the way we campaign for girls.

And that’s why Cara Natterson, M.D., who’d already worked as a medical consultant on The Care and Keeping of You (a book series for girls), decided to write Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising Sons.

Because all of our kids—boys and girls—are “growing up in a playground we didn’t play in,” Dr. Natterson tells Scary Mommy. That—the doctor, author, and mom of teenagers says—is the greatest challenge 21st century parents face. “This is all new to us. What their sources of information and education are. And socialization. Particularly in the online world. And we’re struggling to figure out how to parent around that.”

She goes on to say that we spend so much time and energy “identifying the negatives and demonizing them”—i.e. the online world—and we need to a better job of seeing where there is good information and positive support for our kids. Because the truth is, they are all online. We can choose to either stomp our feet in denial or cower in fear over what they see, or we can embrace the modern technology that encompasses our kids’ world, and learn to parent through it.

As a mom of a boy who is online every day and who is also naturally more introverted, I have had to see the good that modern technology offers our family. Online gaming and communication provides my son with friendships and connections that he may not have at school. Through his headset and internet world, he can talk to kids who “get him” after spending eight hours in a school building with kids who don’t. Letting him be online, even as a tween, means he is less lonely and feels validated, feels seen, and feels normal. And although the online world may seem scary to parents who didn’t grow up with it, it is also a gift introverted kids of our generation didn’t have.

So if learning to parent kids through a technological world that we didn’t grow up in is the greatest challenge for 21st century parents, what then presents the biggest obstacle for 21st century boys?

According to Dr. Natterson, it’s the lack of conversation about what, exactly, they’re going through. She says we do a really good job talking to girls about “what words they need to know, what skills they need to have, what supplies they need, but we haven’t caught up for our boys.”

The truth is, we aren’t talking to boys enough about what’s happening with their bodies, and we aren’t giving them the social permission to discuss it they same way we are with girls. Dr. Natterson doesn’t mince words and states bluntly that boys “need to have open conversations about wet dreams and inconvenient erections and what they’re feeling when seeing pornography online.” They need to know why their voices crack, and they need to be able to talk about the pressures they feel to be a certain body type (because yes, boys feel those pressures too).

Much like young girls are growing increasingly vocal in this modern feminist age, boys need the opportunity to “grab the microphone” regarding puberty, Dr. Natterson says, in order to grow up into well-adjusted adults who are in tune with their bodies, emotions, and needs.

She says the problem is that we, as a society, have divided up information and conversation as if it’s a pie—a finite resource. “We’ve said to ourselves, ‘Our girls need all this information and all this conversation.’ And, by default, if our girls get it, our boys don’t.”And this, Dr. Natterson says, is the greatest struggle our boys are facing today. And we have ourselves to blame. But we can fix it. We can and must have all the same conversations with our boys—conversations about physical development, emotional well-being,

Another important point Dr. Natterson makes is that boys often aren’t visibly going through puberty as early as girls, so parents don’t realize that yes, emotionally and mentally, they’re in it. And they need us to talk to them about it—even if their voices haven’t changed yet or they’re still shorter than most of the middle school girls. (Her chapter “Yes, Your Nine-Year-Old Might Be in Puberty” is a sobering, but important read.)

Decoding Boys also addresses the fact that kids across the board are fighting insecurities about their bodies. This not a “girl” issue. Boys are inundated with images of what the “ideal” male body looks like. Boys look at themselves in the mirror and struggle to like what they see. Boys deprive themselves of food, over-exercise, try unsafe supplements, and become obsessed with weight, fat, and muscle tone. And they need as much guidance toward self-love and strong self-esteem as girls do. “We have gendered eating issues and body image issues in a way that’s totally inappropriate,” Dr. Natterson says, and that needs to change.

Because it’s a book about raising adolescent boys, not surprisingly, her book talks about sex, consent, and pornography too.

In the chapters entitled “Boys and ‘The Talk’: 21st-Century Information Disruptors” and “Boys and Sex: The Game-Changing Roles of Porn, Nudes, and Consent,” Dr. Natterson goes there—to a place a lot of us don’t want to go. But there’s no denying it—we can’t talk about consent and sex while we raise 21st century kids if we don’t talk about pornography. First of all, pretending our kids haven’t or won’t see it is naive and foolish. Maybe your kid doesn’t have a smartphone yet. Guess what? His friends do.

Gone are the days we grew up in where you and your friends might have discovered (gasp!) your dad’s Playboy under his bed and had limited one-time exposure before your parents caught you and sent you outside to ride your bike.

Now, those images are online, in our tween boys’ hands, all hours of the day.

Again, we can cross our arms and turn our backs and say “not my kid,” or we can face the truth and talk to our tweens and teens about what they’re seeing. Because the reality is, porn is everywhere. EV. ER. Y. WHERE. According to Decoding Boys, 90% of boys 18 and younger have seen it. 60% of girls have too. And newsflash: exposure doesn’t start at age 17 or 18. It starts when they get devices in their possession, which for a lot of kids, is as young as elementary school.

Dr. Natterson says that she’s spoken with so many parents—so many dads—who said, “I got quiet. I went through puberty. I hid in my room. No one talked to me about anything. And I came out on the other side and I talk now. I understand my feelings. I’m fine. Why do we have to do this with our sons?”

Again, our kids are playing on a different playground than we did. We cannot continue to pretend their world is the same as the one we lived in when we went through puberty. We owe it to all of our kids to give them resources and the language they need to talk about what they’re going through.

“The world has shifted. It’s a fact. It’s not good or bad. It’s just a fact,” Dr. Natterson says. Too many variables have changed for us to parent our kids the way we were parented. We need to make some changes in the way we parent, and we need to start by talking to our boys.

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