A couple years ago, I wrote Rules for Aunties of Boys. Of course the rules could be applied to aunties or uncles, nieces or nephews. Being an aunt myself to three spectacular nephews, I came from the vantage point of diving off the living room couch into piles of pillows because… well just because.
I know the 50 Shades of (Abuse) Grey craze has everyone either postured against one another or simply worn out. I don’t want to belabour any points already made, but I have to admit the presentation and content of stories/movies got me thinking about how I’m going to relate to my nephews once they’re old enough to start questioning… you know… stuff.
Yeah. Sex stuff.
Realizing that my nephews’ parents are reading this, as well as grandparents, I want to be clear first off that I’m not seeking to be my nephews’ primary authority on all things sex-related. Nor am I trying to create an awkward post by sounding like Crazy Auntie Erin, while my nephews are still only tinies at the moment.
What I’m trying to accomplish is suggesting some healthy ideas family members, other than parents/primary caregivers, can live, speak, suggest, use, consider or tweak when we see our beloved nieces and nephews, grandchildren, cousins, or whomever reach ages when awkward questions might come up. I know I don’t want any of my nephews, or any child, exposed to crap like 50 Shades until they are old enough to read/view such content with a mature enough mind to truly consider what it is they’re absorbing. But if life has taught usanything, it’s to be prepared for anything.
So how do we be guides to our little ones, and how can we be supports to parents? Let’s dig…
- Sex isn’t supposed to be awkward, but it will probably feel that way when the subject comes up. We all went through puberty, the teen years and college. While some of us might be more up on current trends than others, we know that frank, open discussions about sex don’t have to be squeamish. Get comfortable with terms and trends.
- Ask Mom and Dad about what they’ve already discussed surrounding sex. Parents don’t have to share every detail about intimate family discussions, but most parents I know are pretty clear about the basics: “We teach the anatomically correct names for body parts”, “We talk about good touch, bad touch” Your niece or nephew may never ask you about sex (EVER!), but on the other hand s/he might come out of nowhere with a question about sexting. Knowing the parents’ family standards, values, teaching and education gives you a good barometer of your boundaries.
- Not all tough questions your nieces or nephews will throw at you are sex-related. While hormones might be raging at 13, he might be bugged about why he can’t read as well as his friends. Just because sex is a big thing, it isn’t the only thing.
- Attached to Rule #3, stay open-minded. We’ve all heard about teens having “only one thing on their minds”. Be careful of becoming someone who assumes all tough questions are going to be sex-related. If our growing kids have more than one thing on their minds, let’s be respectful and acknowledge that.
- Be cool in your skin. The words “penis” and “vagina“, while goofy sounding words to pre-schoolers and kindergarten kids, are just that: goofy sounding words. Sure they giggle, but trust me: make a joke and point to your arm and they’ll bust a gut over the word “arm”. Don’t believe me? BOOGER. ‘Nuff said.
- Build trust now. Me kissing a stubbed toe or a little scratch on the hand means more to a 3-year old than anything else. Those tiny boo-boos are his world, and when I take his world seriously he knows that I take HIM seriously. When he’s a teenager, he’ll know those other awkward issues will be taken seriously too.
- Laugh. A LOT. Laugh at the knock-knock jokes… laugh at the fart jokes (right place, right time with those ones)… laugh at the jokes that make no sense at all. LAUGH. Laughter eases tension, and creates an atmosphere of comfort along with that trust.
- Keep busting the myth that “boys are visual”. Let me explain: it’s true that boys ARE visual, but contrary to what history has taught us, girls are just as visual (if not more so). The same areas of the brain light up at erotic imagery in the same ways and with similar intensities. Not only that, but women have double the amount of nerve-endings in our genitalia than men. While this rule isn’t meant to be a competition, it’s important for boys to know that girls are overwhelmed at them too in similar ways. And while girls are discovering their visual connection with sexuality, boys are discovering their sensory and emotional part.
- Learn how your little one communicates best. Boys often open up more while doing something spatial or mechanical, while girls are more open to verbal talk face-to-face. But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. It’s up to us to learn how our kids talk while they’re not talking. That way, if my nephew is helping me haul firewood and suddenly pops a question, I know he’s asking because he feels comfortable with how he’s asking.
- Stay open with parents and caregivers. Yes, we want to be people of trust; but don’t cut parents out. You don’t have to recount word-for-word what you talked about with your nephew, but just mention “Oh… Sam’s asked me why girls breasts grow. We chatted a bit, but in case you wanted to follow up…” Maybe parents already know about Sam’s curiosity; maybe not. Keep parents in the loop.
- If you walking into a room and catch your nephew snagging porn on his phone or laptop, DON’T FREAK OUT. I repeat: DON’T FREAK OUT. The very last thing a maturing boy needs is his AUNT screeching at him about PORN. Stay calm. He’ll already be embarrassed, angry or upset. Keep it chill.
- If this happens, refer to Rule #2. Have Mom and Dad already mentioned that they’ve had this kind of talk with him? If so, gently say that this is one of those times you need to speak with Ma and Pa. No matter his reaction, it has to happen.
- If you sense it would be okay, ask: “Did you know his/her name?” (referring to the person on the screen), “Where is he/she from?” You might think these questions would embarrass him (and they might), but the purpose is more to focus on the humanity of the figure on the screen. The entire point of pornography is exploitation and dehumanization. Some simple but direct questions that focus on humanization can help him think of people as people in new perspectives.
- And YES… you will STILL tell Mom and Dad.
- And YES… he will angry or embarrassed at you for a little while, but because of the trust and comfort level you’ve built, he’ll forgive you and love you forever.
- And YES… remind him that no matter what, you’ll always love him.
- Try to keep on top of at least some of the latest apps and flows of information. While platforms like Facebook and Twitter claim to be neutral, the content that’s posted certainly is not. Furthermore, there are apps like Snapchat and Tumblr that cater to easy sexting, bullying, and other exploitative behaviour. Further still… as much as I wish it wasn’t so… there are adult apps that are easily downloaded by anyone no matter their age.
- Keep kids’ exploring in perspective. Just because your niece has downloaded an erotic picture or posted on an adult website, it doesn’t mean she knows entirely what she’s doing or the consequences of what she’s done. Chances are she feels both empowered, excited AND terrified. Refer to Rule #11: remain calm.
- Accept the “I don’t know” answers. Remember giving those? Remember receiving those? As I recall, I didn’t tell my parents “I don’t know” because I wanted to aggravate them, but because I was so overwhelmed with the world that I couldn’t put a better answer into words. I needed space to process. I needed to be alone.
- In making space for the “I don’t knows” and alone time, you’re giving valuable time for your changing niece to formulate questions or answers. That’s sacred space. Cherish it like she will. Besides, it gives you time to back off of your initial emotional reaction and really evaluate the situation before you.
- Refer back to Rule #16: remind them that you love them no matter what.
- All questions are safe questions. Remind them that you’ll treat their concerns with respect and attention.
- 23. Learn that curiosity and exploration aren’t evil things. Too often curiosity has been met with shame. Education and trusting relationships help form healthy kids ready to respond to the world.
- If your nephew does confide in you that he’s been viewing porn a lot… doing drugs… drinking… or letting his temper get out of control out of sight of his parents… or downing protein shakes to make the team… or wants to tell you he’s gay… or that he’s chosen to become sexually active with is girlfriend in a mutually consenting relationship… well, take a deep breath and be grateful that this kid trusts you enough to share his deepest trouble and fears.
- If he does confide in you about a growing problem, listen, listen, LISTEN. Ask a few open-ended questions, but for the most part: LISTEN.
- Refer back to #16: your love is unconditional. Whatever he’s going through, your love will stick by him.
- Make an next-steps game plan. Sometimes your little relatives open up to you because they love you; other times it’s because their immediate family isn’t so stable. You know your family best, so your next steps need to be based on what’s best for your nephew. While you might not agree with some of his choices, some really won’t be 911 conversations to be freaked out over. A drug problem? Yeah… make a plan. Having safer sex with his girlfriend? Probe out if he’s taking all precautions or how he came to that decision, but be realistic about what’s a “problem” and what’s a life choice he’s making for himself.
- Talk about ways to broach what he’s told you with his parents. Remember: we want parents in the loop. There are times when it’s the parents who aren’t safe, but those situations call for professional assistance. By and large, remind your nephew that you love him but Mom and Dad need to know what’s going on. They love him, and want the very best for him.
- Go with the left turns mid-conversation. You might be prepared for a long drawn-out sex talk after she asks you about menstruation or why her boyfriend dumped her. But attention spans and emotional developments vary. You might talk about awkward stuff for 5 minutes, and suddenly she wants to borrow your jacket so she can go get ice cream with her friends. 5 minutes was all she needed.
- 31. When stuff like 50 Shade of Grey come on the scene, realize that your nephew might not be exposed to it at home… OR when he visits you… or in the official school classroom. But his friends might be pummeling him with stuff they’ve learned from the books, movies, mags, or websites (or what they think they’ve learned). Understand that he’s already seen or heard what we really don’t want him to see or hear. Be prepared for vented frustration or unwillingness to talk. He’s talked out or tired of the subject already.
- Knowing this, refuse to fall back on the “they’re going to do it anyway” line. That’s a total smack in the face to young people. Yes, A LOT of kids experiment with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll growing up but that doesn’t mean all kids do. We love the kids who choose to abstain; we love the kids who choose certain behaviours but not others; we love the kids who seem to choose ALL the wrong behaviours. Find a balance between having expectations that are far too high to meet (resulting in guilt and shame when a bad choice is made), and expectations that are far too low (resulting in showing how little faith we have in our kids).
- Have your own personal boundaries. If your niece walks in and starts talking about sexuality in grotesque terms, or about other people in cruel ways, put your foot down. For example, in my house there will be NO slut-shaming. I don’t care how a girl’s dressed, or how she acts towards others, or what she does with whom; she is NOT a slut. She’s a person with a name, beloved of God. Or if , heaven forbid, my nephews create fake FB pages to ask an “uggie” out on date (as a joke), there will be words spoken. Yeah, fake FB pages are sometimes seen as cyber-pranking but it results in cyber-bullying.
- Learn terms like cyber-pranking, cyber-bullying, sexting. What your niece thinks is funny might really be cruelty.
- Text lingo can help you interpret conversations a whole lot easier. Know the code: “lol” (laughing out loud), “rofl” (rolling on floor laughing), “lmao” (laughing my ass off), “omg” (oh my god), “omfg” (oh my fucking god), “fml” (fuck my life), ftw (fuck the world OR for the win), “182” (I hate you), “9” (parent watching), “99” (parent not watching), “GR8” (great). Of course these will change as our littles come of age, but keep on top of it. Even if your nephew is open with you about stuff, he might not understand what’s being sent to him.
- Make time with your nephew, problem or no problem. Go to the movies, go for ice cream, offer to be a chauffeur for the evening for him and his friends so that Mom and Dad can have a break. Not all quality time has to be spent talking about awkward stuff.
- 37. Be a calm, loving force in the gale. Women are becoming more and more empowered in terms of expressing sexuality and equality. While your nephew needs to understand and respect a woman’s right to her body and that “No” means “NO”, be supportive of his development too as he tries to be the best man he can be. Likewise, as we encourage our nieces to be confident women, set the standards for empathy and mutual relationship. Stringing guys along because it makes girls laugh is unacceptable behaviour that has nothing to do with empowerment or equality. Help untangle these abstract ideals out for kids who still think concretely.
- “I don’t know” is an okay answer for you too. Kids value honesty more than we give them credit for.
- Repeat #16 again.
- It’s great if your niece or nephew looks to you as a confidante, but be careful of taking sides. All kids get mad at their parents. Have the common sense and respect to listen to your niece’s grievances, but realize that she’s probably going to get over her anger after she talks it out with Mom and Dad (and after a good night’s sleep).
- Be open to sharing about yourself as kids grow up. For example, be honest about how you yourself used “No meant NO!” or how you were in charge of your body. Talk about how you were scared and interested at the same time; talk about how hard it was to decide how you did; talk about how it felt afterward.
- Be open to sharing about your mistakes, too. We’re not the only people who learn from our mistakes.
- Treat other family members with all due respect and love. Kids don’t stop watching us after they turn 10 or 12 or 16. Even if you have to cut out toxic relationships with other family members in your life, kids will watch HOW you do it and that can speak volumes.
- If your nephew walks out of the bathroom with a pad or tampon, tell him what it’s for as age allows. He might shrug, he might be grossed out, or he might be more curious. But later on, he’ll be more open to understanding female cycles. Same goes for condoms — girls and boys. Tell them what they’re for and, if they’re ready, why.
- Girls can have wet dreams too. Make sure that both boys AND girls know that having an orgasm during sleep is 100% normal. No big deal.
- “You’re gay or trans? Hey… I love you and I’m proud of you.”
- Big talk around consent in sexual situations (and there needs to be). Make empathy a part of your sex talks. Sometimes in our bid to say “NO!”, we confuse a well-intentioned but poorly-executed request for a date with a guy/girl being vulgar.
- Be interested in every area of your nephew’s life. Guys already face too much pressure to be sexual creatures ONLY. Take an interest in his baking abilities or knowledge of math or musical skills. A holistic interest can assist him in creating his own balance.
- Tell Mom and Dad what great parents they are and that you love them.
- Homemade cookies will never go out of style.
- #16 once again: tell your niece or nephew “I love you forever. No matter what.”