If you’re waiting until your kids are teens before you talk about gender, sexuality, and personal privacy rights, you are starting too late.
Recently, my article, “Hey Dad, Your Twelve Year-Old Daughter Has a “Nude Out,” was published, and it’s getting some justified attention.
As I watched the FaceBook share number rise, I realized that my title made the victim (the younger girl) the active agent instead of the predator (the older boy). Isn’t that kind of blaming the victim? Shouldn’t the boy be the agent in my title considering he is older, being coercive, and has intent to deceive in this scenario? But then again, ‘predator’ is probably a harsh word for a goofy impulsive teenage boy, or is it? To make it more complicated, sometimes the girls are more willing to pose and distribute their “sexy” image than the boys are willing to receive it.
Ultimately, both the boy and the girl may suffer serious moral and legal consequences. Join me in tackling this issue by considering what you want for your kids and how we might facilitate their delicate and important journey toward good judgment, compassionate morality, and sexual power.
Last week’s article detailed a spooky teen “trend” that I learned from teen clients in my private practice.
This trend involves a well-traveled digital bridge between middle school girls and high school boys where high school boys deliberately plot and groom middle school girls to send sexy pictures via text. The boys then assign point values, share, and trade with their friends a la human Pokémon cards. Seriously, this topic makes me rant, and for good reason.
Admittedly, I’m somewhat conflicted in my feelings. On the one hand, I’m angry that a boy grooming a girl to expose herself on screen media at such a painfully tender age is manipulative, selfish, and potentially very damaging to both of them. And for the boy to share it without her consent is frankly criminal and makes him (and the girl) vulnerable to child pornography and revenge porn charges. But is it predatory?
After all, let’s face it, teenage boys are pretty much drunk from a brain newly flooded with testosterone and their frontal lobe won’t be done developing until they’re around 23 years old. What’s more, the thousands of sexualized images of women, and to a lesser degree men, that bombard our kids on screen media everyday fuels this objectification. Even our adult culture has a long way to go to responsibly and sensibly deal with issues like intimacy and sexuality. The multi-billion dollar porn industry and lecherous sexual trolling on adult dating sites are testament to that.
I’m also angry with the girls for participating.
What does it mean that so many young women willingly release images of their blossoming sexuality for praise, status, and attention? (Insert snarky comment about the queen of all sheep-wolves, Kim Kardashian, and her new bajillion-dollar-earning book of selfies here). Ugh. As parents, we want them to value all that they are, but not by posing languidly for the lecherous consumption of strangers. Unlike any time in history, it’s too easy to turn a confusingly sexy impulse into a consequence that may be in play for years to come. With this enormous technological power comes enormous risk. In such a complex digital landscape, kids need our involvement in their day to day decisions more than ever.
As a psychologist, I notice two glaring mistakes that parents make when dealing with these issues. First, they start too late. If you’re waiting until your kids are teens before you talk about gender, sexuality, and personal privacy rights, you are starting too late.
The second mistake parents make is they only challenge their daughters with discussion and leave their sons out of it. The digital bridge observation illuminates that we must teach girls AND boys to be respectful, nurturing, and responsible. Sexual education and social problem solving must happen with all genders. You’d be shocked how few boys raise their hands in my university class when we discuss who received sexual education in their homes. And the girls admit that most of their parents were only willing to awkwardly mutter quick comments about menstruation. There’s soooo much more to it than that!
In an effort to “walk the walk,” my husband and I staged a discussion about some of these issues over dinner last night.
Although it admittedly deteriorated into goofy comments and sticky marshmallow spills on occasion, some awesome insights emerged.
My kids asked that I use discretion and not discuss their comments in a public article, but I loved the concept my Navy veteran husband used to help illuminate the issue of assertiveness and social responsibility. The quote comes from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Stephanie Rogish’s book, Sheepdog Meet Our Nation’s Warriors A Children’s and Educator’s Book:
If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath—a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path.
A little heavy for our thirteen year-old daughter and eleven year-old son perhaps? Initially, yes! In fact, at one point in the discussion my son looked at me and pleaded, “But I love wolves! Why can’t I be a wolf?” clearly missing the metaphorical value of Grossman’s insights. But we persevered in explaining to him what being a “good man” and a “good woman” means to us. We didn’t lecture. We listened and encouraged knowing that this discussion would happen over and over for years to come in many different forms. We taught them that “wrong” happens the moment you’ve hurt yourself or another human being, not just when you’re caught. Most of all, we reassured them that we will be there for them every step along the way, when they do things they are proud of and when they make mistakes. We reminded them that nobody can do this alone, and we are in it together.
Here are some of the points we considered that might facilitate your discussion with your family around the dinner table tonight:
- People are far more than a body part. Behind every text, image, and idea is a human being with thoughts, feelings, and value. Treating yourself or others as an object instead of a person is demeaning.
- Screen media is a powerful tool. Once your hit “send,” that text, image, or video can never be taken back. Consider if it would be OK to show it on the screen in a school assembly before you send it to anybody. And parents, if you need help don’t hesitate to reach out to the school administration or the police. They are well versed in these issues and have specially-trained personnel. It’s rarely a good idea to approach the other children involved or their parents for that matter.
- Save private interactions for face-to-face relationships. If it’s on screen media, it’s unlikely to stay private.
- Collecting “likes” is not love. Sometimes it’s even the opposite.
- Represent yourself online just as you would offline. Character matters.
Although parents don’t want to admit it, romance and sex titillates people of all ages, even children. As adolescent hormones come online those pressures increase. The world gets all that much more overwhelming and confusing as teens learn to drive their new brains. A middle school girl recently told me that a boy came up to her and said,
“I can’t decide if you’re a slut or a nerd.”
This disclosure launched an important discussion about what those words mean and what he was trying to accomplish by demeaning her with them. From this discussion she insisted she would not cower like a sheep, and I promised to encourage boys not to be wolves.