How A Conversation About My Son’s Body Hair Made Me Stop And Think

Joanna McFarland Owusu Tweens & Teens

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Changes are afoot in my world, on a much smaller scale than the myriad changes afoot in this great nation of ours. A few weeks ago, my youngest son commented in passing on the fine hair growing on his arms and legs. Without missing a beat, his older brother nonchalantly announced that he has hair on his balls. I choked and sputtered and asked him to describe more precisely what was happening down south. He's nine going on ten.

Perhaps nine going on ten isn't what it used to be, in my memory. I reflected on another sign that the times are changing in my world, when I found myself in the car with five 8- to 9-year-old boys. Sometimes you hear the darndest things when they think you’re not listening. As we drove to my son’s laser tag birthday party, the backseat talk took an unexpected turn. Someone mentioned “hot ladies.” A reference was made to hot sauce and peals of laughter erupted, and I suppressed a sigh of relief. Surely “hot ladies” didn't mean what I was imagining? But when we passed a billboard advertising a gentlemen’s club, laughter exploded over a chorus of “HOT LADIES!” And then one of them said something about hot ladies kissing private parts—and I almost swerved off the road.

I’m afraid there’s always the one kid. An outlier, who maybe has unfettered access to the Internet, watches movies or plays games most of the other kids don’t, or has an older sibling who does any of the above. Shoot, my younger son will be privy to the wisdom and knowledge of his older brother, and may well be the outlier in his peer group at some point. The moment was jaw-dropping, and made me take pause.

We’ve talked about where babies come from with our kids. A pregnancy with a 6- and 8-year-old in the house necessitates clarifying some of the finer points on the topic. But this was different; something I wasn’t prepared for quite yet. My sweet little 9-year-old hasn’t even had a crush, as far as I can tell. I went online and found some disturbing facts.

Studies show that each year roughly 40 percent of teens and preteens visit sexually explicit websites, either deliberately or accidentally.

My kids sometimes grab my phone and have Siri search for obscure-sounding Pokémon characters, and I’ve found myself suddenly panicking about the status of the Internet safeguards on my device and rushing over to see what pops up. And I harbor no illusions about my children’s ability to circumvent any safeguards we put in place, if they really want to. My younger son was more adept than I was at operating my first smart phone for months – and he was two at the time! If we accept that kids are likely to see graphic images before we want them to, let this one sink in and keep you up at night: Children can suffer a host of long-lasting ill effects when they’re exposed to sexual imagery at a young age.

My parents had a great book that described some of the physiological changes the body undergoes, as well as the miracle of reproduction, complete with cartoony, biologically-correct, drawings. I used to hide it under my bed and giggle over it with friends. I found the copy and we read it with our son and let him keep it in his room for his own perusal.

This is an issue that’s not going away, so we’ll keep reading up on how to manage it. And we’ve also begun some new discussions in our house about what it means to objectify women, and why that’s a problem. In fact, the changes in my world bear some resemblance to the climate in our nation right now, where men in positions of great power have shamelessly objectified women, and worse. It’s a stark reminder of the importance of raising my boys to be respectful to all women. Perhaps with enough coaching, they’ll change the subject the next time the group chatter turns to “hot ladies.”

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Joanna McFarland Owusu

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