Dad uncomfortable with sex scene in son’s bedtime reading

Michael from New Jersey, asks:

Our son Sam is a sixth-grader. I have been reading a book called "King Dork" to him. The book is billed as a modern day "Catcher in the Rye." Thirty or so pages into it, the book’s protagonist encounters a girl at a party. She smokes some pot (he abstains) and some heavy petting ensues. As the scene progressed, I stopped reading to him because a) it seemed strange to read a sex scene to my son, and b) the general material seemed inappropriate. I let Sam finish reading the scene by himself and then he went to bed. I’m not sure what to do from now on. Continue reading to him, let him read it himself, or take the book away?

I can understand your discomfort at suddenly finding yourself reading a sex scene to your sixth-grade son. That isn’t what most parents imagine as bedtime reading when they open the book. However, such scenes are common in what is called Young Adult reading, and your son is getting very close to adolescence. I think you picked up a book advertised as "the new ‘Catcher in the Rye’" because you recognized that he is growing up. You were hoping to keep him engaged and willing to maintain the night-time reading ritual by picking a book with an adolescent theme. Had you forgotten what adolescents find edgy and exciting?

You’ve got three decisions to make: 1) whether to keep reading "King Dork" with your son, 2) how to talk with him about the scene you read together, or 3) whether to keep reading to him at night as he grows up. I recommend that you stay with the book, but you should read way ahead in the book so you won’t get surprised again. That will certainly make the book less exciting to you, but will enable you to finish it with him without an unexpected embarrassing surprise. If there is another sex scene, you can decide whether you want to read it together, or you can let him read it on his own.

In either case, I hope it leads to a talk between the two of you about sex and relationships. I can assure you that all sixth-graders are talking about relationships with the opposite sex; that’s a staple of middle-school conversation. Many of them are thinking about the importance of sex, even if they are not yet actually imagining have it; many already have a masturbatory life.

I believe that you should and could use this book as a chance to talk about sex. Some good first questions might be: Are students in your grade talking about being girlfriend and boyfriend? What do you think about that? Do you know any boys who have kissed a girl? When do you think kids should first have sex? Have you had any sex education in school? Do you think you know everything that you need to know?

You might buy him a book like Robie Harris’s "It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health," if you haven’t already purchased a sex education book for him. It is funny and accurate and the illustrations are compelling.

Finally, I hope you continue your bedtime reading ritual as long as he will let you. Find some classics, things he wouldn’t read on his own, but that are still exciting for boys: "The Red Badge of Courage" or maybe Robert Louis Stevenson. Check with the town or school librarian or buy the guide, "Best Books for Boys: A Resource for Educators," by Matthew Zbaracki. There are many books that the two of you will find exciting and that won’t suddenly embarrass you. Sexuality tends to make parents and children a little nervous in each other’s presence. That’s normal. Keep reading together. He can start reading books with sexual themes on his own time.