This originally appeared as a column in the Five Towns Jewish Times:
I honestly never thought I would be writing a letter like this. I’m very upset and embarrassed but I know this is anonymous and I really just need to know what to do.
A little background: We are a religious family, and we take our parenting very seriously. We put a lot of thought into where we send our kids to school, based on our values and the kinds of families who send there. We’re careful about what our kids are exposed to and try to protect them from any inappropriate influences. We don’t even have a TV in our home, and the few devices we have are filtered and set to parent controls. Our children range in ages from 2 to 12. It’s lively in the house, but they’re good kids- they mostly do what they need to and until now, we haven’t had any serious problems with any of them. We’re not even up to the teenager stage yet, but it got very intense this week.
Basically, I’m pretty sure my 12 year old son has been watching pornography. I was using my laptop, and I went into the history to find a recipe I thought I’d earmarked for the holidays, and saw some very suspicious looking sites. I clicked on them to see what they were and… it was bad. I told my husband, and we decided to ask him straight up, together, if he had visited these sites. We did, and he turned red, got very quiet and said he’s sorry. I’m so upset, but he looked really mortified, and I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, but I just started to cry. My husband asked him what made him do this, and he said some kids in school were talking about it. Apparently, he got curious, and figured out how to bypass the filters on the laptop. Now we’re thinking of getting rid of all out devices.
I’m so angry and hurt. I put my trust in these schools, and assumed that by putting my children in pure, holy environments, they would be protected from this kind of thing. And now it’s the exact opposite. But more importantly, I’m worried about my son. This is so not the way I wanted him to learn about the “facts of life.” I’m scared that he’s addicted or will be completely distorted in his views about intimacy, or that he will corrupt other kids, and then not be accepted to high schools. We didn’t say very much to him in that first conversation because we weren’t sure what the right approach is and we don’t want to make it worse.
Angry, ashamed, and scared
Dear Angry, ashamed, and scared,
Your feelings are understandable, and I know many other parents relate to your experience. We all have certain values and ideals for our kids, and when something happens that threatens that, it’s very disturbing.
The first thing you need to know is that your story is not shocking or unique, at least to a therapist, or to anyone who helps or educates humans professionally. We get messages and calls like this regularly, often about children much younger than your son (and also about adults who are much older.) In fact, I would venture to say that over 90% of men and boys under the age of 35 have definitely been exposed to pornography. This is true, almost regardless of how they were raised or “sheltered.”
Whether we like it or not, in our own lifetime, porn has gone from being viewed as a seedy, under-the-radar fringe activity, to a mainstream and epidemically wide-spread and legitimized form of “entertainment.”
Members of religious communities, families, and institutions now have to contend with ubiquitous accessibility and peer pressure, as well as a growing dominant worldview that this is normal and even healthy. There is much to be said on the nature of why, even for those who are not connected to a religious framework, pornography is not a healthy outlet for sexual education, desires, or fulfillment. But for now, let’s focus on the details of your letter:
1 The Burst Bubble: You describe your parenting style as insular. Meaning: you had hoped to avoid unwanted influence on your children by attempting to create a bubble of wholesomeness for them. I imagine most idealistic parents can relate to wanting this in theory. But you’ve discovered the hard way, that unless you put your children in an actual physical bubble, they will discover things- usually not the way you’d like them to. And when kids are not prepared for this, they’re actually more susceptible to peer pressure and harmful influences. Forewarned is forearmed. I say this not to add guilt to your plate, but because this is your oldest, and there is opportunity to correct your approach for the rest of the family, and even, for this son, going forward. I often say: ignorance is not innocence.
2 Abolitionism: You say that your son found this material on a device in your home, but please realize that even if you had no devices in your home, kids often end up seeing it in others’ homes. As you said- he heard about it from friends, so they could have easily done this exploration somewhere else. Ridding your home of the internet might feel cathartic in the short term, but it would not be a fool proof solution.
3 Education: You say this isn’t how you wanted your child to “learn the facts of life.” What he saw was likely not fact at all, but fiction, contrived and warped. A 12-year-old who isn’t taught about sexuality from parents his most likely to hear about it from peers, pornography, or predators. (In fact, most kids will hear about it on their own much younger than 12.) So, we are not talking about an age that’s inappropriate for a child to know some information- many kids start puberty by then, but the thoughts and curiosity begin even younger. Again- this is not to shame you for not educating him sooner, just to reassure you that he’s not too young to learn, and to recommend that you take a more proactive approach with your younger kids.
4 As tempting as it is to blame the schools or these friends, the truth is that kids from every school get curious, exchange sexual information, and have cohorts watching explicit material. The internet is everywhere, no matter how much some families, communities, and schools try to limit it (which can be useful to some extent.) It’s not a school’s responsibility, or even ability, to police everything middle schoolers talk about with each other in their free time. School can still play a role in conveying values, but ultimately kids have free will and some degree of exposure. It’s up to us as parents to educate our kids with clear values, not so they won’t encounter temptation, but so that when they inevitably do, they will know what it is and how to deal with it. And that they can always come to us with questions and for help navigating difficult situations.
5 As far as what to say to a child who has already been exposed, there is a lot. If you saw the sites, you know what he saw, and can address the specific content and its distortions. The overall message you want to give is that it’s normal to be curious, it’s normal to have interest, especially at this age, but what they saw online is most likely an unrealistic and unhealthy portrayal of human bodies and of what happens in real life relationships. That you as the parents are the best address for him to come to with any questions he might have about his body or sexuality in general. (If you don’t feel up to the task, you can use materials to educate yourself, such as books from the resources section on my website.) You can talk about religious concerns, which are important, but using a more psychological, empathetic approach at first is more likely to get him comfortable enough to talk to you about what he saw, the thoughts, feelings, and questions it generated, and the likelihood that he will continue opening up.
6 His own religious guilt might come out in the course of open conversation, and then you can help him with that too. You can acknowledge that what he saw online was not a respectful or holy version of physical intimacy, but that there in fact is a healthy, monogamous framework for it in religious relationships. That using pornography is considered unhealthy for the mind and the soul, but that we believe in teshuva. That people make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and then try to do better. That having sexual thoughts, feelings, and desires is healthy and how we are naturally programed, but what we do about them is up to our own moral choices and free will.
7 You say you’re worried that this will create a distorted perspective for him. This could be true IF it becomes his primary and ongoing source of information. If you re-educate him and let him know that this was in fact misleading, and then substitute with more accurate, healthy, balanced, and values-infused messaging, this can become a valuable life lesson. He was going to encounter this eventually. This a teachable moment. Explain why the pornography industry is often exploitative of and even dangerous for the actors, how it can create unfair expectations for real life relationships, and how it’s designed to become a pervasive, time-consuming habit that can be really hard to break.
Many parents try withholding, punishing, or controlling their kids’ knowledge and behavior. But ultimately, healthy, holy, proactive conversation is far more effective at conveying wholesome messaging. As much as you didn’t want this to happen, try to see it as an opportunity to adjust and improve your parenting in a way that can save your children from more insidious influences, and prepare them for future challenges and healthy adult relationships.
For more information on healthy, holy sexuality education, see this video material.