Scarleteen Confidential: Ten Questions with Scott Todnem about Puberty, Masculinity, and Raising Boys
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Here at Scarleteen Confidential, we encourage parents and guardians to have honest, supportive conversations with young people about sex and relationships. Because we know that can sometimes be intimidating, we're always on the lookout for resources to help with the trickier parts of those interactions, which is why we were excited to read the recently released Sex Education for Boys: A Parent's Guide: Practical Advice on Puberty, Sex, and Relationships by Scott Todnem.
Using a set of sex positive priciples as the overarching framework, the book walks parents and guardians of boys through the ways to approach topics like puberty, dating, and safer sex. It also addresses less commonly covered topics such as positive masculinity and encouraging emotional vulnerability in boys. Which is why we're so glad Scott was willing to chat with us about how the book came to be, how to model positive masculinity, and the different challenges that come with raising boys.
1) How did you develop the conversation tips that appear towards the start of the book?
First off, thank you for the questions and a chance to interact with Scarleteen and your readers! I am fortunate to have over 20 years of experience working with teens and pre-teens in some capacity. I teach health education at the middle school level, and I also have four children of my own. Most of the conversation tips come from my interactions with students as well as learning from other experts in the field of parenting and education, specifically sex ed. We use your website in school as well as other great resources like Amaze, GLSEN, Advocates for Youth, Sex, Etc., Nemours Kids Health, and others.
A bit of trial and error goes into discussions as well, as I’m sure any adult working with young people might understand. I thought it was important to start with a big picture view and to help adult readers with some basics: use accurate terminology, remain body positive, and model lifelong learning.
2) You emphasize the importance of positivity in these conversations. Do you find that some parents struggle with sex positivity and body positivity when it comes to young people?
Absolutely– though oftentimes through no fault of their own. Many parents and guardians use techniques that they themselves experienced, for better or worse. As kids, if we were put through only a singular talk about sex and relationships in school or at home, and the message was a resounding “don’t do it, but if you do, stay safe,” without many details or a chance for ongoing questions and conversations, we may do the same with our own children. Much of puberty growth is indeed private, and sexuality is a tricky topic, so in some aspects our societal norms have conditioned us to hide bodily changes and sexual feelings as if they are gross or unnatural.
Obviously, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sex and relationship development might cause some embarrassment, sure, but we don’t want that to mean we should ignore the fact that humans are sexual beings with differing body types and differing identities and expressions all deserving of education and support. We know that remaining positive about bodies and sexual development helps young people far more than shame or neglect.
3) What are some basic behaviors you think adults can model to help young men move towards positive forms of masculinity?
Simply drawing attention to the historical implications of patriarchy is a start. Pointing out stereotypical gender roles and how those are being reinvented to strive for gender equity can be beneficial. This doesn’t mean masculinity is a negative thing, however. Being male in itself is not inherently bad, no more than being female or nonbinary. Boys aren’t born “toxic” and maleness should be celebrated too. In our movement for body positivity, we don’t necessarily see a lot of literature aimed at helping young men through puberty. That is changing, which is great, and adults can model healthy maleness with the rejection of toxic traits like bravado, violent domination, misogyny and sexism while embracing mutual respect, chivalry, and caring for family and friends.
4) Any favorite examples of positive masculinity?
There is a striking contrast in toxic masculinity and positive masculinity. Masculine behavior can include plenty of productive characteristics like striving for success, creating/building/repairing, providing safety, and fair play and competition. A “gentleman,” if the term applies, is kind, helpful, and courteous-- traits we welcome as caregivers and want to help our sons to develop. I think my favorite example would be altruism– putting others before ourselves. This can be seen in action with the old-fashioned example of holding open doors for others, but it really includes avoiding selfish behavior during things like dinners, school work, or informal conversations. Positive masculinity rejects entitlement to instead exude genuine empathy and solidarity with others.
5) I know that when I’m giving advice to parents and other caregivers, my experiences as a young person are very present in my mind. Were there any formative experiences or feelings that influenced the direction you took the book?
For sure! I was privileged to have a very supportive upbringing, with both of my parents in the picture providing a welcoming environment for growing up and asking questions about life. I realize not everyone is as fortunate, so I wanted to acknowledge that with various family dynamics and scenarios presented in the book for handling the job of parenting an adolescent boy.
Also, I know from experience that physical and emotional growth differs for everyone. I happened to grow up tall, and quickly. (I was 6ft tall by the end of 8th grade.) But I wasn’t emotionally equipped to handle some of the pressures that came with that. It is rare to ask how a tall, muscular boy is doing emotionally, assuming that stature can equate to strong mental health. Conversely, other boys didn’t experience puberty growth until later in teen years. Adults can sometimes baby smaller boys unnecessarily through adolescence. This was all important to keep in mind since society can treat boys differently based on physical appearance– which isn’t always fair. I wanted to emphasize there isn’t just one way for someone to grow up, but all boys deserve social-emotional support, particularly through the stressful ebbs and flows of adolescence.
6) Were there any things that surprised you when researching the book?
It’s not a surprise, necessarily, but I constantly realize how much I don’t know about teaching or parenting adolescents. I don’t always say or do the right thing. No one does. That’s an important thing to acknowledge, which is why I believe remaining open to lifelong learning is an essential part of caregiving. I may even have concepts in the book that will become outdated, and that’s okay. We will evolve with our terminology or our conflict management or other best practices for educating young people through puberty and sexual wellness. And that progress is something to embrace.
7) If you could snap your fingers and remove one misconception about adolescent boys, what would it be?
That boys don’t care. Adolescent boys do care, and not just about personal image or reputation either. Boys often want to do the right thing and show care for others. But they need to feel cared for themselves. This may sound corny, but we give what we get– which is why unconditional love for our young men provides such a powerful connection that impacts all future interactions.
Boys aren’t all hormone-driven beasts with uncontrollable sexual urges, either. Being sexually curious isn’t inappropriate, but being uninterested in dating relationships is also common too. Either way, young people have questions– lots of questions– so consent-based, age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education will continue to provide honest answers for everyone’s benefit. I truly believe that quality sex education can improve our social progress and our human experience. Breaking negative gender stereotypes greatly helps with that.
8) Do you think there are parts of raising a son that might be unique to or more challenging for parents of trans boys?
Of course! Raising a cisgender son is unique compared to raising a cisgender daughter, so obviously raising a transgender individual will prove to have its own challenges and celebrations. The challenges unique in this instance can depend on numerous items: the age of transition, doctor and therapist recommendations, extended family and community awareness, the education or experience of the caregiver, and much more. Not all gender diverse people experience dysphoria, but trans students often explain their biggest mental challenge occurs if their body has started puberty within their assigned sex from birth.
We know that having a support network both at home and at school is an immense asset for affirmation and livelihood for our trans youth. Trusted adults can champion a transgender child even through mistakes or misunderstandings. Remember, lifelong learning and unconditional love is key. My parent’s guide book wasn’t able to go into much depth on parenting trans boys, so I am hopeful for non-binary authors to continue to receive the spotlight with literature specific for our trans youth and their caregivers. Check out resources like TSER, PFLAG, GLSEN and more for help.
9) What’s one thing you hope parents and caregivers take away from the book?
Simply understanding that a relationship bond takes years of work through childhood and adolescence. Our caregiver role already includes so many life lessons that we know won’t be taken care of in one day or through one conversation. An open line of communication allows for multiple conversations throughout multiple years. Supporting sexual wellness can begin with age-appropriate lessons well before puberty/sexual development. But if related conversations haven’t started yet, it’s not too late! Our children may feel and show hesitation or awkwardness just like we might, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t taking things to heart. Stick with it through the ups and downs just like any other part of parenthood. Let sexual health be one part of social-emotional discussions instead of building it into a dreaded topic. Parents don’t have to be experts! But wouldn’t we rather our kids come to us with questions to work through together instead of putting blind trust in teenage friends or an internet search?
10) If you could go back in time and give your teenager self some advice, what would you say?
It’s going to be okay! There are lots of “normals,” and your normal can be just as worthwhile and enjoyable as any other. Growing up involves change, but change isn’t necessarily bad or scary. In fact, a lot of the changes in life turn out for good. If at all possible, enjoy the ride and just be yourself.
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