EDITOR’S NOTE: This article handles mature topics and is the second of a two part series. The first installment broached the topic from a philosophical standpoint, this second part discusses the practical how-to’s of speaking to your son.
Several months ago I wrote about how Orthodox Jewish fathers can talk to their sons about puberty. While that was more of a philosophical approach to the topic, I wanted to follow up with the practical elements of “the conversation.” With the sensitivities of our Torah’s laws regarding relationships, it’s important to be mindful of all of the variables that could negatively or positively impact the success of the discussion.
At what age should we open the conversation? Given the fact that technology is pushing inappropriate material to younger and younger children now, I believe that somewhere between eleven and twelve is the best age to begin this ongoing talk. The body will begin changing, thoughts will begin arising, and girls they know may begin to look different. Up until this point, they may have found girls uninteresting or annoying, but all of a sudden, they’ll begin to notice them.
The first issue to discuss is that, up until now, many of their bodily changes have been public and commented on. “You’re getting taller!” “You got a haircut!” “You got a new shirt.” Any changes that have happened in their private world have been reinforced to be private since they were four years old. If a child brings up something to do with the bathroom in a public context where it isn’t appropriate, they may be reminded to save that for when they are in private. Now, a whole new set of private changes are coming to them and to the females they see around school, shul, or the neighborhood. Let your son know that most of the changes that happen to his body, and all changes that happen to women’s clothing, are now private. The likelihood that they’ll make an awkward statement about their own private changes is low, but the likelihood that they’ll notice changes in females is high, and they may have a sense that it’s private, but making it explicit that it’s a woman’s private business is crucial.
Sexual Thoughts, Porn, and Masturbation
The second issue is more internal. Your son may start to have thoughts that are either vaguely or explicitly sexual. What is he supposed to do with these thoughts? He won’t be married for at least ten years, maybe more. The sources we saw in our last installment are keen to point out the importance of not dwelling on these thoughts, and not dwelling on the shame they may make him feel. This cannot be stated enough. The main way to insure a continuation of the problem is by dwelling on the shame. The shame is the yetzer hara’s way of pulling you into the next aveira.
The main purpose of the yetzer in this area is to wear down his self-reliance and make him feel incapable of resisting temptation. If he convinces himself that he is weak, he will be. Remind your son that he can be strong by bringing up the issue with you or with another male mentor, doing teshuva, and then moving forward, being mindful to avoid the situation that brought him down in the first place. If he notices that he ventured online to look at inappropriate images when he was home alone or bored or some other emotion, help him note that that’s when it happened. The sifrei chassidus say that Hashem loves a broken heart. What a strange statement! Why would Hashem love a broken heart? A broken heart is the foundation of growth, and the pain of not living up to our own standards is what can propel us to be better.
Additionally, educating your son that pornography exploits women, that many women who end up in these videos are child sex abuse survivors, and that half of the women who are sex traffic victims report being recorded while they are being assaulted will automatically remove some of the allure of this content. Reminding him that his wife will feel hurt by his consuming this content also frames the issue as an act that hurts other people.
The third issue is social. Picking up from an issue we touched on earlier, boys should be aware that girls are also going through changes, but that their changes are different. Any further details beyond that are up to your discretion. You know your son. If he is the overly curious type, and he’s going to find out anyway, then it’s best for you to control the information. If he would rather not hear about it, then feel free to just say that their bodies change too. This is where things get awkward. We’ve already discussed what to do with intrusive thoughts and what to do to avoid taking in explicit material.
How do we control our output? The things we say and the actions we do can have a huge impact on those around us, and as such, it’s on us as men to be aware of some simple facts. Men, on average, are taller and heavier than women. Men, on average, are stronger than women. Men, on average, commit more sexual assaults than women. Men, on average, commit more acts of domestic violence than women. Imagine if every woman you knew walked around carrying a baseball bat. Imagine that they very rarely used them, but that the majority of cases of men getting beaten happened because a woman with a baseball bat did it. And then they often got away with it.
Back to reality. The issue of being less physically imposing and more frequently assaulted leaves women vulnerable to attacks that men are not as vulnerable to. Because of it, we have to learn how to speak and behave in a way that will make us trustworthy to not take advantage of our differences in size and strength. Obviously, the vast majority of men would never do anything close to assaulting a woman. It is simply inconceivable for most of us. Unfortunately, many women have experienced a situation where they felt that they were endangered. Let’s discuss some ways to establish ourselves and remain a safe entity in the eyes of the women we know.
In discussing this issue with your son, it may be helpful to break all mixed-gender conversations into three types: professional, friendly, and courting. Professional behavior means that minor pleasantries are brought up, but most of the focus is on the project, not the person. Friendly means that there is some focus on the person’s life, but never on their body, clothes, or relationship status. If your son starts to ask a girl “are you single?” he may be switching the conversation into a light courtship.
Courting is a broad range of types of behavior, but it encompasses any discussion about wanting to be in a romantic relationship. This can be very innocent at a young age, so it is important to ask your son what he sees as courting. If he is nervous, help him understand that these topics are confusing, and that he can always check in with you to see whether or not what he did was courting or friendly. It’s really hard to tell the difference sometimes! In courting, it is also not appropriate to talk about someone else’s body or clothing. Discussing these two topics is a slippery slope. “But I was just complimenting her shoes!” True. And power to you for choosing the most innocuous garment, but it’s a short trip from talking about her shoes to talking about her skirt or pants and then all of a sudden you’re both standing there discussing her body, and maybe she doesn’t want that, and maybe she won’t actually tell you that she doesn’t want to. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Even when you’re past courtship and you’re in a full blown relationship, it is still nice to pay less attention to the physical and more to your spiritual and intellectual similarities.
One of the grey areas that comes up in courtship is emotional intimacy. The problem with this is that it can look exactly like friendship. Unfortunately, the greatest teacher in this area is experience. Ask your son about his different female friends as he gets a little older – around fourteen or fifteen. Try and let him see that some of the secrets shared, some of the inside jokes, or some of the conversations that they have had may have had a second agenda beyond just becoming friends. Emotional intimacy may just be seen by guys as “getting to know her as a friend,” but the girl involved may see it differently, and developing or trying to court emotional intimacy with someone may be just as inappropriate as making comments about their clothing. I know that these are hard truths to say over, and that they may come off as harsh, but these issues are incredibly sensitive and clear boundaries help all parties avoid unhealthy relationships and prepare for healthy future relationships.
The fourth issue is how to deal with disappointment. In the preceding paragraphs, we have set high goals for the young adolescent. Masturbation is incredibly demoralizing for teen boys, and it is addictive in ways that we’re just beginning to understand in the psychological community. It awakens confusing evolutionary signals that habituate the body to associate very strange stimuli (being alone, the feeling of adventurousness near a computer or mobile device) with sexuality. Your son needs to understand that while the Torah expects us to strive for greatness, it doesn’t expect perfection. There are many areas of observance where we try our best to do the right thing (gossip, anger, jealousy) but don’t always get it right all the time.
Needless to say, any chasan teacher will tell you the incredible beauty of intimacy in its right time, and the terrible ugliness of misplaced intimacy. Masturbation isn’t intimate at all, and it does away with the most important parts of sexuality – the give and take, the tending to the needs of another, and the elements of pair bonding. Helping your son steer clear from these psychological tar pits is one of our greatest responsibilities. The most important part of implementing any set of standards is appropriate follow-up. Just a simple reminder from time to time that you’re proud of his effort and celebrating his successes will help him internalize positive feelings about controlling his yetzer. More important than celebrating his victories is being there for him with reminders to adjust, plan ahead, and move on when he slips up. This will help him internalize the idea that the goal of teshuva is to fix the past by changing the future.