Why parents need to talk to their kids about sexting

My friend Jim (not his real name) was putting away clean clothes in his 4-year-old son’s room when he glanced over to see the boy with a hand shoved purposefully down the front of his pants, a look of earnest concentration on his face. “Jack!” (not his real name), my friend bellowed. “What the hell are you doing?! I’m standing two feet away from you!” “But Daddy!” the boy cried, “You told me I could only do it in my room, and I’m in my room!”

My friend had to concede his son’s point. Devotees of proactive, sex-positive parenting, Jim and his wife had made a conscious decision to meet Jack’s inevitable discovery of his pleasure center with open acknowledgement and few guidelines. Rule #1: Mom and Dad know how awesome that feels. We only ask that you do it in the privacy of your room.

Jack’s literal interpretation of the first rule prompted Jim to add Rule #2: You must be alone when you do it. Those two rules seemed sufficient for a 4-year-old, 10 years ago. Today, Jim would have to add Rule #3: And for God’s sake, Jack, don’t take any pictures!

The problem with good parenting, for even the most informed and well-intentioned people, is that we’re often practicing it in hindsight. The best we can do is to establish a set of values to be applied across the thousands of unanticipated situations that life with children will serve up. Jim couldn’t predict the invention of sexting, but he had already prepared the way for discussing it with Jack by his open, positive acknowledgement of his son as a sexual being.

We are mammals and sexual beings, meaning that we mate, and our sexual desire, impulses and urges begin in early childhood, even before the onset of puberty. Our bodies are wired for pleasure, whether we use them to serve procreation or not. If you wait to talk to your kids about sex until after they’ve sent, received, or forwarded a naked photo, then you’ve waited far too long. We must tell our children early and often that sex and sexual desire is normal, natural, and one of our greatest superpowers as humans. It feels great and has the potential to create a human being, and it should be celebrated and respected. Like all power, it comes with great responsibility.

Sexting is just the latest way to communicate that powerful desire. Given the number of kids with sexual feelings and phones, it should come as no surprise to any parent that their child might use their phones for expressing those feelings or exploring their curiosity.

The second force at play here is our primate need for connection to the whole. It’s a lie to tell our children that what other people think of them doesn’t matter, or mommy and daddy’s love is sufficient. They have to live in the world outside our homes and being liked means being included, which means everything. We live and die by our inclusion in or exclusion from our social circles, our communities. Therefore, it’s critically important to be liked, on Facebook and in real life. The desire to be liked is never more prominent then during the onset of puberty, when mating instincts take over. Boys are not exempt from this need for connection, although we tend to deny that reality across the board—to their detriment and our own.

Sexting may be the best example of these two forces coming together. Kids use sexting to explore sexuality as well as a means to impress their peers and to gain and sustain admittance in the group.

Unfortunately, in our effort to control or modify these two powerful drives in our children, sexual desire and the need to belong, healthy expression is often perverted by our use of fear, shame, censoring, or punishment when we encounter our kid’s desires.

In our culture, we teach kids about sexual desire primarily in the negative. We teach them almost exclusively with an eye on prevention of pregnancy or illness, or harm, to themselves and to others, which weighs heaviest on boys. Rarely do we teach kids about the joy and satisfaction that sex, at the appropriate time, can bring. It’s not enough to campaign against bad behavior, to “teach boys not to rape,” as I’ve had some parents tell me is their goal. 

We must tell our kids, but especially our boys, that what they are feeling is expected, acceptable, and welcome and offer them a variety of healthy, safe avenues of expression and exploration. We must teach the meaning of and advocate for consensual behavior. We must positively acknowledge our children’s sexual natures. We must educate them about their sexual powers, and the potential physical and emotional consequences of practicing them in adolescence, with and on other novices.

I’m not suggesting that any of this is easy. Nor am I advocating a free-for-all with smartphones.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Allison Slater Tate made the astute observation that this generation of parents is the last to have enjoyed a “low-tech childhood” and that now, “we are among the first of the truly high-tech parents.” To be a high-tech parent means two things: It means that we ourselves live digitally-mediated lives, using technology to manage our businesses and our relationships, and it also means that we are charged with managing the virtual, in addition to the physical, lives of our children.

At best, our children’s virtual lives are extensions of their physical or “real” life. Their online connections are comprised of friends, family, and grown-ups who have already been vetted and deemed welcome, acceptable, or necessary.

But the potential for kids to grow their virtual circle, or network, or village, is as exponential as ours—or greater, given that they are native to the form. The challenge for parents is one of scale. How do we ensure that the quality of our children’s connections doesn’t go down when the quantity goes up? How do we help them manage the speed and excess of a streaming world?

I like to think of my daughter’s phone as a tool. A hammer, to be precise, with the potential to either build or destroy things, and which requires both my permission and supervision to use. My eleven year-old daughter’s social circle is populated mostly with people from her real life, but it also includes some kids that she connected with solely online. The balance is about 90 percent real folk and 10 percent virtual. That’s compared to my own 65 percent—35 percent split. She communicates almost exclusively with her friends by text and Instagram. In this case, technology is being used to build; it’s a tool for extending and strengthening connections.

These multiple interactions require my continued supervision and are not without restriction. The communication must be healthy—not abusive, manipulative or destructive—and the same limits apply for spending time with these people online as they do in real life, i.e., no talking during dinner, or while in conversation with another person, after bedtime, or while operating heavy machinery.

Sex is obviously not new, but the power and speed of sexting is, and we do have our work cut out for us. Jim’s three simple rules for Jack now read like a terms and conditions agreement.

For all its positive uses, we know the way technology can be used to hurt or destroy. The news is filled with tales of kids using social media to harm other kids. Part of the problem is the false intimacy of those tiny text and messaging inboxes. It’s difficult—and critical—for our children, or even we, the grown-ups, to fully understand that texted conversations, feelings, and pictures are not private when they can be copied and pasted to the whole world in one click.

To start we must positively and openly acknowledge our children’s sexual nature. We must give them factual information about their bodies to combat the wildly divergent and inaccurate myths about sex that they will encounter. We must warn them of the danger of creating permanent images or words based on temporary states of emotion that can follow them forever, or be used against them. We must help them to choose and create social circles that include children with similar values and attitudes, and insist on meeting or knowing the names of the people they communicate with on a regular basis—which for us, for our eleven-year old—means going through all her text messages to see who she’s talking to and how often.

Yes, they may still choose bad friends or fall in love with evil morons, but you will be there when they do. I know more than a few kids who were saved by their parent’s surveillance, because they understood that you could have a “good kid” who is capable of making bad choices while under the influence of the dual forces of hormones and the need for acceptance from their peers.

We’re not going back to tin cans and telegraphs any time soon. The best defense is information and education. As the song suggests, we’ve got to talk about sex(t), baby.

This article originally appeared at the Good Men Project and has been reprinted with permission.

Photo via Pro Juventute/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)