It’s hard enough to talk body parts and their intricacies with a fellow adult; discussing them with a Miss Travel reviews teenager who’d rather have his spleen removed by tiny gnawing rodents than hear you say «penis» is a feat like no other.
I’m normally not a fan of the just-hand-‘em-a-book approach to parenting, but a new guide by licensed therapist and masculinity researcher Andrew Smiler strikes me as must-read material for teen boys grappling with questions about relationships and sexuality.
«Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy» (Magination Press) is written for 13- to 16-year-old boys who are, as Smiler writes, «possibly, maybe, sort of interested in starting to date or kiss people sometime in the not-too-distant future, as well as for guys who have dated or been sexual with lots of people.»
It’s for boys who are interested in girls, boys or both. It’s for boys who need answers to questions they don’t even know they have.
«We put a lot of pressure on boys in the United States to look like they’re competent and to not show any kind of weakness or deficiency,» Smiler told me. «It’s even worse with sex. «
The book is informed by Smiler’s academic background (he has a dental psychology and has written dozens of journal articles on masculinity and sexual development), but it’s also shaped by his interactions with teens who are living the very topics he writes about.
«My clinical work is with teens,» he said. «And periodically I get to go into classrooms and auditoriums to talk to teens in groups. I try to really listen to what they’re saying and how they understand sex and dating.»
He knows how to speak their language, which is a tall order. Parents have very little from their own teen years to draw on as they try to steer their own teenagers in wise, healthy directions. We didn’t even text, let alone sext. Snapchat didn’t exist. Emojis didn’t exist. The rules, to the extent that we knew them, have all changed.
«Unlike the rules of sports or video games, the rules of a relationship can change during the relationship,» Smiler writes. «It’s also complicated because even though you know things like trust are important, you probably haven’t had many conversations about deciding how much to trust someone.»
Smiler does an excellent job of urging boys to consider what type of people they are – what makes them tick, what makes them unique – and reminds them frequently how that will change and evolve for the rest of their lives.
«We know from 20 to 30 years of interviews with boys that it’s very common to come home and find a book sitting on their desk or bed or somewhere they’re going to find it,» he said. «For many boys, that is the extent of conversation they have with their parents. Or there might be a five- to 10-minute follow-up, ‘Did you read the book?'»
«We teach our kids about money, first jobs, activities, schooling,» he said. «Most of us would be horrified at the idea of looking at our kids and saying, ‘OK. College next year. Any questions?’ But sometimes when it comes to dating and sex, that’s what we do.»
Boys shouldn’t have to feel they already know all the answers. Neither should parents. This book does a great job of pushing back on those expectations, even as it offers just about everything a teen needs or wants to know – and maybe then some.