Family Matters

Early Puberty in Boys: When Should Dads Start Talking with Their Sons About Sex?

With growing evidence that boys, like girls, are maturing at ever younger ages, who's ready with helpful advice?

  • Share
  • Read Later
delphinE LE BERRE / Flickr / Getty Images

With growing evidence that boys, like girls, are maturing at ever younger ages, who’s ready with helpful advice?

Moms really can’t avoid having the puberty talk with their daughters — the arrival of their first periods makes sure of that. But now that boys — like girls — are hitting puberty earlier than ever, they’re going to need some sex ed too. The problem, according to at least one pediatrician, is that parents aren’t lining up to explain puberty to their sons. Moms feel awkward referencing penises, says Dr. Claire McCarthy of Boston Children’s Hospital, and dads aren’t socialized to tackle the topic. McCarthy, who discussed the subject on the hospital’s Thriving blog, says both moms and dads “look at me like I have three heads” when she recommends they talk about sex with their 10-year-olds. “Women have less comfort with it, and men have zero comfort,” she says. “That’s kind of a bad combination.”

For about 15 years, studies have been showing that girls are developing breasts and getting their periods earlier than they used to. And last month, researchers announced in the journal Pediatrics that the trend is true among U.S. boys as well. On average, the researchers found that African-American boys are experiencing the beginnings of genital growth, testicular enlargement and those first stray pubic hairs at 9.14 years old, compared with 10.14 years for white boys and 10.4 years for Hispanic boys. Boys are now maturing sexually up to two years earlier than boys did a few decades ago. The reason? The rising levels of childhood obesity are almost certainly to blame since hormones that regulate sexual development are stored in fat.

(MORE: In a Rush to Mature: Study Finds Boys Hitting Puberty Earlier than Ever)

For parents, the trend means pushing up that dreaded discussion about sex. The conversations can be tricky to finesse, but they’re important. As hormone levels change, they result in more than just physical changes: they affect the brain as well, prompting tweens to start to have new and unexpected feelings of arousal. They may be confused, even angry. As puberty takes root, kids experiencing these changes at ever younger ages may be ill equipped to deal with their emotions. “It’s easier to talk from your experience, so it’s easier for women to talk to their daughters than to their sons because they didn’t have erections when a cute girl walked by,” says McCarthy. “Fathers can do this talk much better. But in every single family, the dads look kind of horrified when I talk about these things.”

Thomas Matlack, founder of the Good Men Project, bristles at the assessment that dads don’t talk about sex. “Men are much more interested in being active and involved fathers than they were 25 years ago, and that includes talking about sex,” says Matlack, who started the online magazine as a place for men to share thoughts about what it means to be a good husband, father and man. “We have to make boys feel comfortable in their own sexual skin. That means talking about everything.”

That goes for both dads and moms, despite the fact that McCarthy suspects many may be hesitating to talk about sex with their kids for fear of encouraging promiscuity. Some school-based sex-education curricula maintain an abstinence-only focus out of concern that teaching students about contraception will encourage them to become sexually active; some parents take the same approach, even though research from the Guttmacher Institute has proved that theory wrong.

“When it comes to sex, [parents] want to keep [their children] innocent,” says McCarthy. “They feel that if they have ‘the talk’ too early, it will make them more likely to have sex. Ninety percent of the time when I ask parents if they are talking with their kids about puberty around ages 9 or 10, they say no. Even when they get to be 16, they’re still not talking about it.” If the latest study trends are confirmed, at least parents can take solace in this: with puberty starting earlier and earlier, they can get the sex talk over with sooner.

MOREMasculinity, a Delicate Flower

37 comments
jnobrien
jnobrien

I friend of mine described the sex education he received from his father at age 12 as follows:

Dad: Do you know where babies come from?
Son: Yeah, I think so.
Dad: Then watch yourself with that b***h down the street.

BTW, this was in 1959. I hope things have changed since then, but I have my doubts.

PS, I have no kids.

brigettebrugada
brigettebrugada

@sixstringsensei Dude... you need to get on that! Better he hear "the talk" from you rather than a classmate who may screw up the info.

brigettebrugada
brigettebrugada

@sixstringsensei Someone's gotta! So important. And did you notice the age? YIKES!

BrianG
BrianG

It seems the more important issue has been completely ignored in this article: how to view sex and communicate that with our children. Simply talking about it may not be healthy if what fathers say about sex is not wise. Talking about sex should not simply be a matter of biological mechanics, pregnancy, disease, etc. Wise fathers will first spend some time thinking about healthy sex before they talk with their children. I have had to unlearn much of what I learned about sex from my brother and friends growing up, which was sexuality rooted in lust. Now that I have been married for nearly 20 years, I have learned about the relational dynamics of sex, how sex is connected to the marital covenant, loving my wife and turning off my selfish nature to care about and serve her. I hope I can set different expectations about sex with my children.

CultureOfOne
CultureOfOne

Can you please re-title this article and replace the ambiguous grammar?  I almost fell off my chair when I read the original headline.  It should, more accurately, read as follows:

"Early Puberty in Boys: When Should Dads Start Talking With Their Sons About Sex?"

Ideally, dads won't be talking about sex with their sons, but rather talking with their sons about sex.  Grammatically, it's a minor distinction, but an important one.

TrajanSaldana
TrajanSaldana

why is it that American parents "dread" talking to their children about sex?

FranticKL
FranticKL

@TIME @timehealthland as soon as they see their son is interested. Parents are oblivion these days too many dont know their own kids

MelGerbino
MelGerbino

@TIME @TIMEHealthland @addthis "When should dads start talking about sex with their sons?"- As soon they understand what food is

TaniaBarber
TaniaBarber

Parents shouldn't shy away from the topic because it's typically okay to talk about sex. It is better that the kids grow up with the right mindset about the topic rather than to become adults who see sex the way the media does--a commodity.

PatchouliW
PatchouliW

@iD4RO @karenkho Usually? when @chrishansen arrives. #2CatchAPredator

oldfreerider
oldfreerider

.@TIME maybe at the moment they start looking at the same girls?

monster74
monster74

I recently had my initial conversation with my 8 year old son.  I wanted him to know that I was available to him as a source of information, and we had a wide ranging conversation while eating lunch at Panda Express.   While parts of the conversation can be awkward, it was important to me that I be the one filling in the gaps.  We have had two follow-up discussions about it, and he is has become much more comfortable as have I with all the different aspects.  I found that the conversation cannot be just about sex, but it quickly becomes one about the development of relationships between adults of which sex is a part of.  I found my son to be engaged, mature, and inquisitive about the topic.  My biggest challenge has been having my son not tell his six year old brother about our conversation.  The earlier the better from my perspective.

Margery
Margery

I have an 11 yr old g-grandson who is an inch or two taller than I am, weighs about 120# and I've noticed his voice is, very occasionally, sounding quite different.   Knowing his father, I'm inclined to believe that if his mom can't come up to dealing with it, she will have to ask her father or brother to do it.   

I think that many parents shy away from discussing it is because they are afraid that once it is out in the open what grownups do in that closed door room, the kid will always be looking at them funny.  That is what a friend told me when after talking about sex her daughter cheerfully asked if she could watch the next time her parents had sex!   I'm stil laughing at that after all these years.

droo46
droo46

Funny how we're hitting puberty and "growing up" earlier but putting off growing up (raising kids, living on our own, etc) until later.

ursanegro
ursanegro

i'm a 40ish guy. black, too, if it matters.i started having the sex talk with my stepson when i saw porn on my browser history. since i don't look at naked women in porn, it was a fairly good assumption that it was he who had been to the sites.

we talked *so* freely and explicitly about any and everything from the day he came to live with  my then-husband and myself that when we split, the teenage boy stayed with me, at his father's request. 

just tonite there was an episode on a local current affairs show about teens, safe sex [or lack thereof] and hiv among south african teenagers, and we watched it together and had a discussion about it afterwards.

JMR
JMR

Dear Time, thanks for your sexist stupidity. Moms can't avoid talking to their daughters about sex because of their periods? What about single dads...or what about dads who care enough to talk to their daughters anyway, single or not?! And why do dads have to talk about sex with their sons? Moms can do that too. And why do you have to call the sex talk a "dreaded discussion about sex"? That's part of the problem...ignorance and fear. Do yourselves and your kids a favor and realize sex is not good or bad in itself. Educate kids on seat belts. Talk about drugs. Do the same thing with sex. Why make it shameful or embarrassing. If you're ashamed to talk about it, imagine the message that sends to your kids. Drop the "dreaded discussion about sex" BS and grow up.

pendragon05
pendragon05

How about not doing it until marriage???

TomMichels
TomMichels

I find it interesting that we still think "the sex talk" is done once and it's over. Seems to me it should be an ongoing conversation.

commentonitall
commentonitall

"Men are not socialized to discuss the topic", evidence please.  Like those commercials that depict dad's as utterly incapable of doing household chores or changing a diaper this is complete crap.  Where is the proof of this statement.  Why do "experts" always try to make males seem like bumbling idiots whenever anything regarding the family dynamic id mentioned.  It's annoying and sexist.  If similar ads depicted women having no idea how to put gas in their car or not being able to figure out how a hammer works foul would be cried.  The double standard is ridiculous.  In the same token I could say women are not socialized to discuss the topic with their daughter's either.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@BrianG 

You may find marriage a sacred bond but the human organism has instincts that predate marriage.... All sorts of arrangements were commonplace over the last 50,000 years of human sex.

The dynamics of sex put the reptilian brain in all of us in charge and when studied they find that all sorts of things are in play in the mind - domination of one or the other plays a part in sex and sex exists in all sorts of flavors with the marriage variety being a newcomer in history... Sex is violent, involves odd urges not seen in normal life and generally has nothing to do with the recent invention of formal marriage.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@ArielHayland 

 My daughter just turned five and she splits her time with us as single parents...

How should a father react when their daughter was spying on mommy having sex with a woman?

Im still pretty lost with what to actually explain there.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@monster74 

I was guilty of that when I was 13 or so and told my 7 and 8 year old cousins about sex at the time... My uncle was never so pissed as he was at me that day.

ArielHayland
ArielHayland

@ursanegro that's nice to know. not all parents are comfortable talking to their kids about this kind of stuff. :)

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@JMR 

Im not sure that you have noticed that two thirds of your fellow Americans are total morons.

The article was stating itself from the position of the vast majority of American parents who also happen to be lousy human beings with brains either damaged by religion or pop culture.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@pendragon05 

And telling teens that is sure to work isnt it?

I suggest you try pulling your head out of the Butt of the 1950s -  Telling children to wait for marriage has never worked.

TomMichels
TomMichels

@commentonitall I agree. I grew up in the 60's. My sex education was in school and from watching what was going on in society during that era. Neither of my parents had any kind of sex talk with my brothers and myself. Ends up I am a gay man so it wouldn't have done much good anyway!

BrianG
BrianG

@Hadrewsky @BrianG 

You may see marriage as a "recent invention" but it is at least as old as written communications, so making statements that refer to an era that precedes writing is purely speculative.

There are certainly some strange dynamics connected to our sexuality, but we don't have to be confined to act out animal-like urges. We can exercise self control with our sexuality just as we do with many other aspects of our physical life, such as violence. When we lack self control, we do damage to ourself and to others. I can even overcome motives like domination.

So, while some views of sexuality may not have much of a connection with marriage, I have found that by experiencing sexuality in marriage, I am learning many of the profound mysteries of life itself.

eagle11772
eagle11772

@TomMichels My talks about sex with my parents were usually difficult and awkward, but were easier with my mom than with my dad.  I'm a gay male also, so much of our talks didn't turn out to be relevant to my sexuality.  I finally came out in college when I was 23 years old in 1979.

commentonitall
commentonitall

@TomMichels 

There is nothing "wrong" with being gay and the sex talk still applies regardless of your preference.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@commentonitall @TomMichels 

It sure has complicated life for myself when my spying 5 year old daughter saw mommy in bed with a woman.

Weird and sometimes hilarious conversations im trying to ignore/.

TomMichels
TomMichels

@commentonitall What would have saved a lot of angst, depression, and confusion would have been to talk with me at a young age that love and desire is not bound by gender or societies norms. But this was the 60's and 70's and the Stonewall riots so it is what it is and I yam what I yam! ;-)