Care and Feeding

My 10-Year-Old Refuses to Talk to Me About Sex

I want to be able to have serious conversations with him, but he shuts down whenever I try. How can I get him to open up?

A mom having a serious talk with her young son.
Photo illustration my Slate. Photo by Jupiterimages/Photolibrary/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 10-year-old son who is in fourth grade. I feel as though he is at an age where it’s appropriate to start introducing more mature topics, or at least signaling our openness as parents to his questions about those topics. I’m thinking about anything from puberty, sex, and substances to peer pressure, race, and violence.

The trouble is that while we have a great relationship otherwise, my son completely closes up when either my husband or I try to initiate conversations about these topics. For example, he told us recently that the gym teachers at school gave kids the “puberty talk.” When I gently ask follow-up questions (“how do you feel about that?” or “are the kids on the bus talking about sex?”), he gets uncomfortable, clams up, and changes the subject. Last night we watched a kids’ TV show that touched on the topic of racial discrimination. I casually tried to use that as a springboard to start a conversation, and he shut down. He is an advanced and voracious reader, and I know he’s read books that include mature themes involving sex, race, or violence, but when I ask him if he has questions or about what he learns and takes away from what he reads, he’s not interested in discussing it.

I have started resorting to saying, “anytime you have a question or want to talk about something, please come talk to dad or me.” I’ve gotten to the point that I’ve even “bribed” him by withholding something he wants (like a dessert or screen time) until he tells me, say, one thing his friends are saying about sex or one question he has about it!

This topic in particular is an important one to me, as I want him to grow up in a sex-positive household and to understand the meaning of consent (which is not the way I was raised). As he gets older I imagine that he’ll be exposed to more (quite likely biased or inaccurate) information from peers. I don’t want to alienate him by being too pushy, but I’m concerned that if he doesn’t open up, we won’t have the opportunity to correct misinformation or educate him.

He is not especially introspective, so I can’t tell whether he genuinely doesn’t have questions or if he really just doesn’t want to talk about it (I think it’s a bit of both). I guess I’m wondering in what ways we should continue to attempt these conversations as he gets older. Do you have any suggestions on how to get him to open up?

—Open Your Heart to Me!

Dear OYHtM,

I am sure you know this, but you need to back way, way off. The “bribing” is not, in fact, bribing; it’s actually punishing him. Don’t do that. Everyone processes information in their own time and in their own way, and it sounds like he’s a reader and a quiet thinker. Buy him good books about the things you are so desperate to talk to him about.

He knows you’re there if he has questions (oh boy, does he ever!), and he’s only 10. I think you’re trying to aggressively push the envelope on a lot of these issues. I felt overwhelmed just reading your email, and a 10-year-old boy shouldn’t feel like his parents are emotionally dependent on him to have the conversations you wish you’d had when you were growing up.

You can have a sex-positive household without needing him to talk about it. Your job is to display, daily, through your actions and words, the values you hold dear. Let the young lad be. Maybe he’ll come to you; maybe he’ll work it out on his own. A lot of parents find that kids do their best talking in the car, when they don’t have to make eye contact in the process. He may also be more comfortable coming to his father with a lot of this, so make sure your husband is also signaling his availability (but not his desperation!) to have the Big Talks.

Just take a breath, for now.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m not sure what to do. About a year ago I lost my pregnancy at 23 weeks. It was devastating for both my husband and me. But now we are at a point where we would like to start trying again. We both still want to have children. However, I did have some infertility issues, and last time it took a little over two years to get pregnant. And now I just can’t seem to bring myself to talk to my doctor about this. I feel embarrassed to even admit that I want to get pregnant again when it didn’t work out the first time. We did all the genetic testing available to make sure we aren’t carriers of a defective gene and everything came back negative, it was just a fluke.

But what should I do, just wait and hope that nature will take its course and I eventually get pregnant again or should I suck it up and seek help? And has anyone else felt embarrassed talking about infertility? Or is it simply intensifying our loss?

—How to Move Forward?

Dear HtMF,

I’m so sorry for your loss. Twenty-three weeks is an agonizing time to lose a much-wanted pregnancy, and there really aren’t any good ones. I recommend reading Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, which is a very sad and deeply profound account of a similar experience, and will, at the very least, make you feel less alone.

It does very little good to tell people experiencing infertility or the horrific aftermath of a stillbirth “don’t feel embarrassed! Don’t feel like this is your fault!” because your feelings are your feelings and attempting to replace them with More Productive Feelings is just going to make you feel like you’re “failing” at something else.

Talk to your doctor, and consider asking for a referral to a reproductive endocrinologist if “nature taking its course” doesn’t pan out. Explore your options. Seek support from one of the many online groups and message boards from people who have been through what you have been through (Reddit’s r/infertility subreddit is very good). Be honest with your partner. Be kind to yourself.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 15-year-old son has been pretty responsible for his whole life: He always gets his homework done and turned in on time, rarely loses things, and does his chores without being asked. However, he got his braces off about seven months ago and is already on his fourth retainer!

As far as I’ve seen, he’s using his case, but he has returned home from school twice holding a broken retainer, and once claiming to have lost it. We have given him punishments when he loses them and praise when he doesn’t for a little while, but we need a better solution. We can’t keep paying for new retainers, in addition to having him go a week with no retainer while it’s being made. What should we do?

—Retain Your Retainer, Kid!

Dear RYRK,

He’s 15. I know it feels like you’re setting a stack of money on fire (all that orthodontia down the drain!), but at this point, I honestly do not know what you can do that you are not doing. Sit him down, write down how much money you have spent on his mouth to date, tell him you are willing to get him exactly one more retainer, and after that, he’s on his own. When he’s an adult, he can decide if he wants to invest in his teeth or not.

He’s had a lot of dental work already, so I doubt that he has medically significant bite issues or other major problems (by all means, have your dentist lecture him if you have not already tried that). If he loses some or all of the cosmetic benefits from his braces, well, that’s his choice. My parents were never able to afford braces for us, and for most people in the world braces are a luxury item. You got him the damn braces, so you have my permission to throw up your hands and let him deal with the consequences of losing his retainer again.

How Much Parenting Anxiety Is Too Much?

Dan Kois, Jamilah Lemieux, and Elizabeth Newcamp host this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband works at a company with offices all over the country, and has a high-up job. His company moves him around up to twice a year! He insists we all come with him on every move (which I’m not against since he is close with our kids and it wouldn’t be good to have him living alone somewhere else for long stretches of time). However, my oldest kid, a seventh grader, has been to 12 different schools since kindergarten, and my first grader, who is on her third school since kindergarten, has been so affected by the moves that she can barely read! The fourth grader isn’t doing so well either: He still can’t read very well because of a weak early elementary foundation and has not mastered multiplication tables yet. They also rarely have best friends, or even close friendships because of all of the moves.

We still have a toddler, and we are planning on another baby when the toddler’s in kindergarten or first grade, but what can I do to negate the effect of all of these moves on my children’s education and social life?

—Movin’ Right Along

Dear MRA,

I am going to completely ignore the current news cycle and treat this like I would if you sent it last year: This is absolutely ridiculous. You cannot do this. It is having a terrible impact on your children. Marriage is a partnership. Military families do not move with this kind of frequency, and also receive far more practical support with the ensuing transitions, while you are having to make everything up on the fly.

You need to sit your husband down and tell him what you’ve just told me, and that you need to have a permanent home for your family. He may have to change jobs, he may have to be a part-time dad, but he cannot put this burden on you and your children to trail after him like ducks. The last thing I want is to tell anyone to shake up their employment situation right now, but you CAN say: “Hey, we are simply unable to keep this up. We’ve done all the moving we can do.
Where do we go from here?”

This may not be a fun conversation, but it is (checks watch) long overdue.


More Advice From Slate

I am an only child to a mother who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. My wife and I would like to put her in some kind of out-of-home care, but we can’t afford it. The most we can manage is in-home health care, essentially hospice, which is covered by her insurance. We have two kids, ages 3 and 5, and we worry about the impact of this experience on them. Will they be traumatized or horrified by seeing the end of life? Will it put too much stress on the household in general?