If you read part one of this series, it should be pretty clear that we have to be proactive in protecting our children from pornography. Today we’ll look at how we can go about doing that.
Almost a decade ago, when I became a parent, the typical advice for protecting your family from “adult” material on the internet was to have your computer in a central, observable location and to get a good filter. Today, access to the internet is swirling around us from satellites and computers can be found in our back pockets. Access to internet porn can find its way into classrooms, onto playgrounds, and in the back seat of the bus.
As was covered in Part 1, pornography is an addiction and we have to realize that the gateway drug is everywhere. Music videos, commercials, and sitcoms of today have the potential of serving up sights that are more explicit than the “adult” magazines hidden under the mattresses of the generations before us.
Protecting our kids from pornography in this era is a new game, and that requires some new rules.
What Can We Do?
Filters are still a good thing to have. (From what I’ve heard from parents as well as a computer systems expert, the free service from Open DNS is one of the best ways to go.) They keep you and your kids from stumbling onto unwanted images while doing an image search for an elementary school science report or while looking for videos about butterflies. But they’re mostly good for blocking accidental exposure. That’s a worthwhile effort. Curiosity can quickly take unintentional pornography exposure and turn it into multiple intentional viewing.
Filters also generally keep online pornography away from young children who may be curious. But we can’t rely on filters alone. Children are native speakers in this technological world, and eventually they tend to figure out how to get around filters, clean out browsing histories, or access different networks.
Relationships and Communication
Getting ahead of cutting edge technology combined with the momentum of a multi-billion dollar industry takes something much more advanced than filters. We can’t rely on mechanisms to do our jobs as parents. Real prevention takes hours and years of connections, conversations, and healthy, strong relationships. And now is a perfect time to start!
The most potent groundwork for protecting our kids from pornography lies in having warm relationships with frequent, open communication. And that effort must be life-long, not just when we have “heavy” stuff to talk about. Talk to kids about who they played with at recess, who they sat by at circle time, and what they thought about today’s snack. Showing a sincere interest in these things, opens the door to conversations down the road.
With a pattern of communication, kids are more likely to feel comfortable talking to you about that word they heard kids using at school, or that commercial they saw that looked kind of weird, or that image that popped up when they were doing their homework.
In addition to simply creating a precedence for safe, two-sided communication, take the opportunities to talk about the topics that create the subtext of pornography discussion:
Talk about Media
Challenge kids to be critical consumers of commercial media. Help them to recognize commercials as being persuasive more than informative. Talk about plot lines in TV shows and movies and ask about reality vs fantasy and invite them to examine the choices and consequences encountered (or not encountered) by the characters. Find resources on teaching kids media literacy from University of Michigan and check out the site Admongo. Media literacy makes it easier for kids to turn their backs on lies like “everybody does it”.
Discuss media safety and conduct as well. My friend Amy at Teach Mama shared a great family media agreement recently. Laying out family rules and expectations for using digital media is critical. Make it clear that you want kids to “go and show” — get away from anything they come in contact with that makes them uncomfortable, and tell you about it right away. Be sure to give big positive reinforcements when they follow through.
Talk about Respect
Use opportunities to reinforce an expectation for respecting self and others. As you have more direct conversations about pornography, there is much to discuss about the ways people are disrespected, but if there isn’t first a foundational value of respect then that discussion won’t connect as deeply. Model respect as well, particularly in your family relationships.
Talk about Standards
Have clear discussions about what you value as a family and why. Whether that is grounded in religion or not, kids whose families have clear expectations for behavior and frequent conversations about positive decision-making have a framework to guide them as they make choices on their own or with their friends.
Talk about Sex
Kids who are informed and have a healthy perspective of sex are less likely to pursue pornography as a way to answer their questions, and are less likely to be misled by it’s counterfeit to intimacy.
Educating kids about sex takes many small drops in a bucket and begins very early in age-appropriate ways. Simple things like explaining why we wear clothes before going out of the house (who hasn’t had to have that conversation with a stubborn three year-old?), or even modeling a healthy, loving relationship as parents are big steps in creating context for the concept.
Parenting authors/speakers, Richard and Linda Eyre recommend having the formal “Talk” with kids at age eight. I can’t say that that’s the magical age, for some it will need to be sooner and others later, but the logic that kids need to know about sex ahead of (and as something separate from) pornography makes sense. They refer to healthy, committed intimacy as “the hero” and to pornography as “the villain”. We don’t want kids to think of them both as the same bad guy.
As they wrote in a recent newspaper article:
When we talk to kids about the dangers of pornography and exploitation, it is imperative that kids know that real sex and pornography are not the same thing. We don’t want kids feeling shame about their natural sexual curiosities and urges.
If you’re preparing for a “birds and the bees” chat, it can help to gather a few resources first to help you gather your narrative and know what to expect. You’ll want a little more to go on than this dad’s (hilarious) first draft.
Because it’s such a value-laden topic, it will likely be impossible to find a guide that combines your own personality with your family’s values and your child’s needs. You won’t find that wrapped up in a nice little package complete with refreshments to cap it off. Do your research on what’s worked for others and create a composite that works for you and your child.
The Eyre’s share their basic guide online for free and several of my friends have recommended their book, How to Talk to Your Child About Sex*, (though I’ll confess I haven’t read it yet). Check out a sampling of books online*, in a bookstore, or at your local library. They’ll share some common themes and disagree wildly at the same time. (*Affiliate Links)
Whatever resource you choose, look at it as a starting point to build around and make it fit for you and your child. I can’t recommend the best guide for your family, but there are a few key principles to keep in mind for your chat:
- Be Consistent. Instead of just one and done, keep in mind that there are many little talks (and probably a few more big ones) that will follow. Being consistently responsive and open — not just when it’s on the calendar — is critical to helping kids know they can come to you with any questions or experiences.
- Be Responsive. Give your child the reigns a bit. If you can tell it’s too much, back off. If your child is full of questions, answer as best you can. In both cases, that may mean taking a break and scheduling subsequent chats to give you both the time you need!
- Be Comfortable. If you give off the vibe that this whole discussion is painfully awkward for you, odds are, your child won’t be too keen on bringing the topic up again in the future. They may also be left wondering what you were hiding. Even if you’re dreading the job, just pretend you’re loving it. Don’t go overboard cheerleader, but don’t act like you’re being interrogated by the IRS either.
- Be Discreet. Help kids to understand that sex is something that is personal and private. That’s why we call it intimacy. Help them to know that this new information should be treated respectfully and shared carefully.
Pornography is an addiction and the gateway drug is everywhere. Back to my kindergartener I told you about yesterday: What he saw wasn’t pornography, but in a culture where sex sells, it can be a pretty short jump to selling sex. The image he saw may not be considered dangerous, but the pervasive objectification of people and degradation of intimacy is.
Perhaps the benefit of having so much of the gateway drug around us is that we have plenty of opportunities to keep lines of communication open with our kids. Rather than simply closing our eyes, shrugging our shoulders, or pretending it will all just go away, take the opportunity to talk with your kids about some of the things around you and challenge them to think critically about the messages that are being sent.
What experiences have you had talking with kids about intimacy and pornography?
Follow the entire series: Building Strong Boys
A Final Note: These tips are intended to help prevent a pornography addiction. If your child has already developed a habit, please consult a professional therapist. You can find referrals through your pediatrician, your clergy, or your local mental health services.