My son is 8 and fairly innocent. He’s small for his size and younger than the rest of his classmates. Recently he went for an afternoon play date with two boys, one his age and an 11-year-old brother. I know the mother fairly well (and like her) but only have a passing friendship with the father. As soon as my son came home from their house, he ran to the computer room, locked the door and would only come out after prodding and then yelling. He doesn’t know about deleting a computer’s history. I took a look and saw that he had visited porn sites. My husband and I were shocked. We did not yell or punish him, but wanted to know where he learned about these sites. Slowly it came out that the two boys had showed him—and their father had shown them. I have two issues—I’m unsure if I should allow future play dates, even computer-free ones. These boys are clearly more sexualized than my son and I would rather try to contain their influence as much as possible outside of school. Secondly, what should I tell the mother when she asks for the inevitable next play date? I really don’t want to be the one to tell her that her husband has a porn problem that is now affecting their young children.
It seems to me you have a few issues here. First is the issue of future play dates. If your son really wants to play with his friend and asks for play dates with him, your telling him that he can’t do so, may well feel like a punishment to him for his having looked at stuff on a computer with a friend. Obviously, if you think that this boy is a terrible influence on your son, that’s a different story. But if it’s just a matter that he showed him pornography once, why not just have future play dates at your house and either tell them they can’t use the computer or monitor their activities on the computer. What is your concern about this boy? Is there some reason that you think he’s more “sexualized” beyond this incident, which may have been instigated by the older brother?
As for the boy’s mother, there are always white lies you can come up with, but I’m not sure why you can’t be honest up to a point. Just say that the kids were looking at inappropriate websites on the computer and that you would feel more comfortable having the play dates at your house where you can just ban computer use or watch what they’re doing. Any white lies I can come up with will come back around if your son’s story doesn’t agree with yours.
There’s also the issue of your son—what he saw, how he reacted, and what you should say to him. I’m wondering if you know exactly what your son and his friends were looking at. The word “pornography” covers a wide range of material. The hope is, of course, that his friend’s father is not showing his sons disturbing material and that what your son saw was on the “tamer” side. You also don’t mention what types of websites he went on at home. His actions when he got home are particularly interesting to me. He was clearly highly intrigued by the images he had seen. But there’s another part of your story that is telling to me. The fact that he acted in a way that would draw your and your husband’s notice rather than waiting for a time to explore these websites when he could fly under the radar indicates to me that he wanted you to know but didn’t know how to tell you. He also wanted to see how you would react.
This is one of those moments that I talk about all the time when the door swings wide open and you should walk right through it. Talking is always better than letting your kids come to their own conclusions about what you think and feel. Tell him about pornography in whatever way you feel comfortable doing so, but I would avoid talking in completely negative terms, so that he’s not getting the message that he should feel guilty for liking to look at naked people. I can’t tell you what to think about porn, but I can tell you that lots of people like it and that it can enhance some people’s sex lives. That being said, there are clearly significant issues regarding objectification of women and the expectations heterosexual boys who watch porn often end up having regarding their female partners. And, further, there are forms of porn where the participants are being victimized, which is, needless to say, quite problematic.
What you say to your son is partially a function of what he saw. If he simply saw images of naked people, that’s fairly easy. If he saw movies of individuals being abused, that’s something altogether different. But in either case, the key is to talk. By just reacting without explaining, you’re 1) not giving your son the tools to understand what he saw, 2) telling him that it’s bad to like looking at naked people, and 3) communicating to him that subjects related to sex are not open for discussion with you. My guess is that you don’t want to do any of those things. So I urge you to revisit all of this with him in a calm and casual manner. You’ll be glad you did so.
(On a final note, if what your son’s friends are being shown by their father is highly inappropriate, I would consider talking to their mother, assuming you don’t want to contact a department of child protective services. His actions in this case would be considered by many to be a form of abuse.)