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.
Sanford Mann says
I have found Dr. Leman’s books on childrearing very useful. Here he teams up with Kathy Bell to help parents build strong relationships with their “tweenagers” so they can effectivly pass on their own values. I especially like the straight talk to parents who fear being hypocrites because they misused their sexuality, and now want to tell their kids “don’t do that!”This book is about so much more than the typical “plumbing lesson.” As a sex educator and a parent of seven, myself, I like the hands-on tools Kathy uses to illustrate the “plumbing” aspects, but especially the emotional aspects of sexuality. And she expand that focus to help parents discuss “neck up” issues. (Don’t know what those are? Read the book.)Don’t rely on the school or the youth group to form your child’s views on sex, marriage, and family life. Be a proactive parent. Read this book if you need a push in that direction. It even has an index of topics, so you can quickly find the pages that discuss what you need to talk about NOW.I would have liked to have seen a little more on dealing with masturbation. The few pages that cover it don’t emphasize enough it’s connection to pornography and addidictive behaviors that can destroy relationships. Other than that, excellent, helpful book.
I just left the following comment in the Part 1 of your research. Now, reading this, I think this second part is the right place to put it so I copied and pasted it here. Thank you again!
My older child was only 9 when he came to me fully in distress saying: “what my friends are telling me to do is really, really bad, mom”. I got so worried, I couldn´t find the right words to ask him what had happened. I typed a word on the internet and I saw something… the word starts with P, he added.
We went together to the computer and I checked the history. I had set a safe search but for some reason it didn´t work. Sure enough, there it was: less than a minute in the porno.com page. I opened it being alone, to see what he had seen. In just one glimpse, over 12 explicit images. I felt confussed and completely distressed. But I had to react and support my child. First of all, I thank him for trusting and searching me immediately asking for help. I reassured him he was not getting scold for that, I insisted on the importance of him always counting on his father and me FIRST when facing such experiences. We are the people that love him the most in the world I said and I wanted to make sure if anything else happened he would ask for our help. Then the long talk came. He asked me many things. The toughest and best one was: Did dad and you do it too? Sex between two adults that love and respect each other is an intimate fulfilling experience full of care and respect and that is what dad and mom do. Porn has nothing to do with that. It is empty and false… How I wish this talk would not have been necessary so early. Not that I dont want to talk about sex with my children, but the porn issue is really tough…
Now, regarding the safe search, I found a few interesting things after that experience. Some free software downloads set Bing as the predetermined search tool on the web. As soon as you type the letter “p” in the Bing search bar a dropdown menu appears offering all kinds of porn links.
I also noticed some children safety search services detect specific words such as “porn” but not misspelled words such as “pron”. And no surprise, under pron you find lots of porn results… Finally, some other safe search programs such as K9 resutled to be quite effective until it changed and it would not even allow us to open our gmail account… I am still searching for a safe way to let my growing children surf the internet safely. In the meanwhile I activated safe search block at google and my kids are not allowed to surf the internet alone.
I believe it would be very useful to share effective web safety search tools for parents. Do you know any that really works?
I also would like to ask for your permission to translate this post into Spanish and share it with Spanish speaking communities. I believe pornography is deffinitely not been enough addressed as what it is: an alarming drug every parent should be aware of.
Thank you so much for your late nights researching this. Love, Fernanda
Thank you for sharing your experience, Fernanda! It really is frightening how easy it is to access porn and how hard it is to block it out. You made some great points that I think are important, especially that when our kids come to us to tell us about what they’ve found, we don’t overreact or punish them and that we respond by thanking them for coming to us. Keeping open communication is so, so important, particularly on this topic. I would love to have you share this resource and ask only that you include my name and blog address as a reference. Thank you again for adding to the discussion!
Shelby Marshall says
Hi thanks for writing this! Regarding accidental exposure I am petitioning time Warner (our local cable company) to clean up the ondemand access channel for kids. We quit watching ondemand but its important for other kids. Little minds need protection.
I love your boys series… Just a little addition to the “safety” on the internet. There’s a little widget for the browsers called ADBLOCK. It works wonders for us. My son’s 3 so not really browsing on his own, but when he watches Youtube songs this little widget blocks even the annoying ads that were showing up before the video plays. Plus all the websites are completely ad-free.
Wow! What a great tip! Thank you Laura!
THANK YOU for this! I am a mom to a six month old boy and this is already on my mind a lot because of how prevalent it is and how dangerous it can be. These are awesome tips!