Care and Feeding

Let’s Talk About Sex (and Body Parts)

My son is grossed out by the word penis. What should I do?

An embarrassed boy with hands up to his face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single mom to a 7-year old son and a 1-year old daughter. I want to be able to have conversations with my son about his body, girls, sex, and everything in between, but I recently grossed him out just by saying penis. How can I begin to approach these topics so that we can have open and honest conversations? I don’t think I’ll have the same issues with my daughter, who I’ve already started to talk to about body autonomy—hopefully, vagina won’t be as gross later on. Any and all advice, resources, and suggestions are appreciated.

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—It’s Just a Body Part

Dear IJaBP,

Kudos to you for already starting these (often awkward) conversations with your children. So many parents don’t feel comfortable enough to do so. Hell, a lot of people become parents because the adults in their lives didn’t feel comfortable having those talks. Ask your son what he finds gross about the word penis and find out what he’s been hearing from other family members, friends, media, etc. about anatomy and sex. Explain to him that his penis is a body part and, like his arms, stomach, and feet, it does a number of important jobs that Mommy has to be able to talk to him about, even if it may feel a little weird to do so. Give your kids an honest and clear explanation about how babies are conceived and born. Normalize talking about bodily functions and emotions now, so that when puberty is looming and the truly difficult conversations begin, they will be used to hearing you use those words and more likely to be able to receive the information you’re providing … even if they’d rather hear it from anyone else but their mom. Check out Sex Is a Funny Word, which is a great guide to sex, sexuality, and gender expression that is much more progressive than most of the books on the topic. There’s a good chance your son will always be a little grossed out at talking about his penis with you, but he’ll make better choices about what he does with his penis later on if you stay the course. Happy chatting!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single mom of a 2-year-old living in Louisiana. My family is big on adding titles to names (i.e., Miss, Mr., Mrs.) and using “ma’am” or “sir” to responses as a sign of respect. I want to teach my child to be respectful to others, but I think it’s more important to teach her to identify people the way they want to be identified. A friend of my sister’s uses they/them pronouns and prefers to be called by their first name when addressed. This got me thinking about how often I’ve tacked a title on someone’s name to show respect without asked them what their preference is. Am I thinking too hard about this? My daughter’s dad thinks we should “preserve her innocence” by not focusing on queer identities right now because our toddler is only 2, but I think now is the best time to teach her that people are different and that’s what’s important. Please help!

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—Title Trouble

Dear TT,

You are correct. If we teach our children to respect the various identities and gender expressions among us from a very young age, then it will become second nature and they won’t be adult assholes pretending that “it’s just too hard” to use someone’s preferred pronouns, or to abstain from referring to them by their dead name. It’s fine to teach your little person to use titles for people who want them and to use first names for folks who wish to be addressed as such. Encourage her to ask people how they want to be called in their introduction. “My name is Daisy, what would you like for me to call you?” She can use “No, ma’am,” and “Yes, sir” among elders and relatives who would expect to be spoken to as such, and replace the gendered honorifics with “thank you” for other folks.

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• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have an 8-year-old daughter who has been diagnosed with dyslexia and has eyesight issues requiring daily exercises and weekly appointments. She is also getting help for an anxiety disorder that was probably brought on by a serious medical condition that I’m dealing with. She often mentions how she wishes she was “a normal kid,” but we try to make her life as normal as possible and filled with lots of love.

Several experts in her life (pediatrician, the person who diagnosed her with dyslexia, etc.) have suggested we get her evaluated for ADHD. She doesn’t need this diagnosis for school; she gets accommodations already with her dyslexia, and she is doing well both academically and behaviorally. However, she has a hard time socially. She has only one friend, doesn’t get invited to birthday parties, etc. An adult friend with ADHD mentioned that drugs may help her socially, but my husband is very against giving her drugs (assuming she was actually diagnosed, of course). I don’t want to shoulder her with one more “label” if we don’t have to. Should I push for a diagnosis if it leads to a better time in school? Or leave it be? Are there other things I’m not considering?

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—Mom Needs Answers

Dear MNA,

An ADHD diagnosis does not mean your child will have to be medicated—that is a decision for your husband and you to make, even if a doctor urges you to do so. The fact that multiple adults who have some expertise on the matter believe she may be struggling with this disorder, her challenges with socialization, and the fact that she is dealing with an anxiety issue are certainly reason enough to have her speak to a psychiatrist if she isn’t doing so already (I’m assuming that she’s receiving the treatment you mentioned via a counselor, as a doctor may have already raised the ADHD flag.)

Also, while I understand that you’re concerned about attaching another label to a young person who already has so much going on that she pines for a “normal” life, if she has ADHD that is going untreated, she’s not getting the support and accommodations she truly needs to have the best academic or social outcomes possible. I was not diagnosed myself until adulthood, and I often wonder how much easier my life could have been had it been identified when I was a child, particularly as it relates to socializing. I made the choice to take medication, but I know both adults with ADHD and parents of children with it who have taken other paths. Knowing what we’re dealing with is what gave us the ability to do that.

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Your family is going through a lot right now, but hiding from a diagnosis has never made it untrue. And if ADHD isn’t the culprit, the right behavioral help professional can help you all figure out what is, and how to best support your daughter. Wishing you all the best.

Dear Care and Feeding,

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My son just finished seventh grade but had a very rough time doing so. He’s sweet and smart, but a bit of loner and sensitive about a lot of things. While there were several spaces that he flourished in, he had some trouble from other kids in a few of his classes. For example, he kept complaining about a girl he was sitting next to in one of his classes who would smack him, talk loudly over him, take his assignments, etc. I asked him several times if he had addressed her directly, moved to avoid her, and/or talked to the teacher about it. He always said that he had, but the teacher didn’t do anything. However, when I finally emailed the teacher, he responded that my son hadn’t spoken to him, and that he actually had to move the girl after she complained about my son shoving her.

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The thing is I believe the teacher. I think that they are both right—this girl was hassling my son, but my son actually never said anything about it to her or the teacher, and instead resorted to shoving her when he got frustrated. That sounds exactly like something that would happen at home with his siblings. He’s developed a pattern of bottling things up inside instead of speaking up about his needs. A little while ago he had a big meltdown about something concerning him, because he swore he’d talked to me about it multiple times and I hadn’t done anything—but neither his dad nor I remember any conversations about the topic at all. My son will spend a bunch of time worrying about stuff and maybe dropping a few hints, but he won’t actually say what he needs or wants. I will certainly work with the school about reducing bullying from other kids, but he also needs to be able to stand up for himself at home and at school. How can I help him have a better time at school next year?

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—Son Needs to Speak

Dear SNtS,

So, from what you’ve told me, your son came home and complained about a female classmate bullying him, told you that he’d reported her to the teacher, only for the teacher to say that he had not done so and that your son’s behavior led to the kids’ seats being switched. Also, he’s melted down on you and his father after claiming that he’d talked to you about something but that wasn’t true either. Do you think it’s possible that other parts of his account of what happened with this young lady could be less than 100 percent accurate as well?

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The last thing I ever want to say to a parent, in this space or any other is, “Yo, your kid is lying,” and since I wasn’t there, I can’t say that he is. However, you weren’t there either, and I don’t think it’s quite appropriate to decide that “they are both right” without hearing his classmate’s side of events as well. Alas, school is out for the summer and having the sit-down that probably should have taken place when all of this was happening would be a tall order.

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Your son is having a hard time at home and at school when it comes to expressing his feelings, and as he’ll be in eighth grade this fall, the time to address these issues is NOW, RIGHT NOW. If he can’t respond to being “hassled” by a classmate without shoving her in frustration, there could be a world of trouble waiting for him, especially if the student involved 1) is a girl and/or 2) has parents who will raise HELL if they feel their child has been unjustly assaulted at school. Unfortunately, the kid who is struggling to make friends or assert himself against bullies is also, at times, the one who goes off and lands in a world of trouble. That may have been the case here, and I’m curious why his teacher did not share this incident with you when it happened.

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Your son deserves to feel at peace, and it sounds like that isn’t his experience right now. You do not want him to find himself in a position to do harm to himself or anyone else. Find a local therapist or counselor who has extensive experience with boys his age. You need to get to the root of what is making it so hard for him to express his feelings. Encourage him constantly to say what is on his mind and what he needs. Make a point of meeting all of his teachers at the top of the coming school year, and check in with them regularly to see how he’s doing in class—ideally, equipped with what you learn from a professional over the summer, who will have some pointers for how to best communicate with your son. Be proactive. The best way to protect him is not to make excuses for his behavior but to understand it and make inroads toward correcting it. Best of luck to you all.

—Jamilah

More Advice From Slate

My niece is about to enter the workforce and has asked me for a recommendation at my place of work. She is a bright, hard worker but has a few horrible verbal tics she uses frequently, such as using like as a filler word, whatever as a dismissive phrase, and blah, blah, blah. She sounds incredibly immature, and this job requires someone extremely professional. What should I say to her?

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