If you're having a hard time talking to your son as he gets older, you're not alone. Many parents often feel uncomfortable or embarrassed talking with their son about certain topics, like his body. Or, they just don't think they have the right knowledge to share with him.
But kids get lots of information—some true, some false—from their peers and the media, so they need your help to sort it all out.
"As a parent, you have the ability to separate facts from fiction for your child," says Dr. Timothy Blegen, pediatrician at Northwestern Children's Practice and health system clinician at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Teaching your son about his body should be an open, honest and continuous conversation, starting at an early age.
When boys are 8 or 9 years old, they are widely varied in their levels of curiosity and understanding. Some may ask lots of questions, while others may be wondering about things to themselves. Respond to their questions, but don't wait for them to come to you. And, if they ask you a question you're not ready to respond to, it's okay to say, "Let me think about it." Just make sure you follow through with an answer.
To help you feel more confident in talking with your son, here's a list of nine things to teach him about his body:
1. Bodies come in different shapes and sizes
It's normal to think about appearance and to want to be handsome and attractive. "Be open to discussing unrealistic expectations of body image," says Dr. Blegen. "Avoid calling your son 'fat' or 'skinny,' and avoid negative comments about your own body." Your son will pick up on them, affecting their own attitudes toward body image.
2. It's great for many things, from playing to learning and more
Encourage your son to be active and try new things, from organized sports to playing with friends. "Physical activity is not only good for the body," says Dr. Blegen, "but it's also a great opportunity to be active and interact with other children." By supporting their interests and helping them decide what they want to participate in, you can also help them understand and overcome gender sterotypes. At a young age, let them explore.
3. Take care of it, from head—and brain—to toe
Stress healthy eating and personal hygiene, as well as rest and safety practices. "Accidents are the number one cause of deaths in children," says Dr. Blegen. "Emphasize the importance of safety, such as wearing a helmet or seatbelt, in all situations."
4. How it works
"Stay away from euphemisms when talking with your child," says Dr. Blegen. "Instead, use direct language." This means using technical and anatomical terms to explain body parts and their functions accurately and factually. While making up phrases such as hoo hoo, wiggle or ding ding may seem cute or funny, it can actually be confusing and lead to more complicated, uncomfortable conversations down the road.
5. Change and puberty
We went through it ourselves: voice cracking, body hair, erections, sweating, acne and more. And according to KidsHealth.org, kids should know what physical and emotional changes are associated with puberty by the time they're 8 years old: "That may seem young, but consider this: some girls are wearing training bras by then and some boys' voices begin to change just a few years later." Think of it as preparation. Just as adults like to know what to expect with change, such as working for a new employer, hiring a different plumber, or buying a new car, kids should know what to expect with puberty—before it starts.
6. Sex and sexuality
Sex is natural and a part of the human life cycle. Talking to your son about it doesn't have to be one formal, serious conversation—and then you're done. Stay composed and conversational, so they can feel comfortable talking with you about sex any time. And don't be surprised if he gets quiet, starts talking about something else, or walks away. He definitely heard you, but he may need some time to let what he just learned sink in.
7. Privacy in person and online
"With the rise of social media, breaches of privacy are increasingly pervasive and should be protected against," says Dr. Blegen. "Talk with your son about the importance of privacy—including bodies, personal space, and personal information—and respecting his own privacy, as well as others'." Teach him about social media responsibility: that anything posted online, including pictures of himself, is available for anyone, any time to see.
8. Respect yourself
This goes beyond taking care of the body. If someone is bullying your son or touching him in an inappropriate or harmful way, help him feel comfortable with saying "no" and telling an adult. It will be easier for him if you already established an open, honest dialogue.
9. Respect others
Your son will probably start to notice that girls' bodies are changing, too. "Be ready to discuss changes in their female friends' bodies and how to respect them," says Dr. Blegen. "Discourage harmful or disrespectful thoughts about girls learned from friends, media or other sources."
Many great resources are available to help you teach your son about his body, from his pediatrician and teachers to books, such as "The Boy's Body Book," and websites, such as Healthychildren.org and Young Men's Health. Dr. Blegen encourages you to listen, be prepared and look for teachable moments day to day, but most of all, he says, "Take an active interest in your son's life and activities, and be open to having a conversation. It will make all of this more natural."