What makes accountability with our children have lasting results? It’s one thing for a father and son to have a few conversations that result in a temporary change in the son’s integrity. It is quite another to create a dynamic that causes the son to be open to ongoing conversations about sexuality and integrity. That’s really what we are talking about.
Lasting accountability requires a relationship between father and son that welcomes difficult conversations.
What is in the Way
In 2019 Be Broken surveyed a large group of teen boys who came from Christian homes. When we asked why kids today are afraid to talk with their parents about sex all of their answers could be summarized in these two points:
We are afraid our parents won’t understand.
I’ll get in trouble for what I say or what questions I want to ask.
These two statements illustrate what is standing in the way of lasting father-son accountability.
Do You Understand Me?
First of all, boys are afraid that their fathers do not know what it feels like to be sexually tempted. When fathers talk to their sons we tend to talk from the head instead of the heart. Sons are left uncertain if their dad really understands how they feel.
Saying “I remember wanting to look at porn at your age” does not necessarily send the message that we really know what that feels like. That is talking from the head. Talking from the heart sounds more like this:
“When I was eleven my friends showed me porn at a sleepover. I knew I shouldn’t want to but I could not make myself look away. It made me feel something I’d never felt before and I wanted to see more.”
This kind of confession on the part of a father resonates much more with his son. This is speaking from the heart to our sons. Lasting accountability with our sons requires that we be open and honest about our own past.
Will I Get in Trouble?
Boys also worry that they will get in trouble if they admit they have already seen porn or engaged in some kind of sexual behavior. Boys can also be afraid to ask questions about sexual words they have heard and do not understand. Instead of going to Dad, they ask Google or an older friend, which rarely ends well.
The only way our sons will be honest with us is if they know it is safe to tell Dad. That means we, as fathers, have to restrain ourselves when our sons confess or ask a question we are shocked that they even thought of.
For accountability to last, our sons need to have positive experiences during accountability conversations. They need to feel supported, not judged. Here are some tips on how to make that happen.
When a son asks a question that we are shocked by, or that we don’t know how to answer, we can start by responding, “Wow, that’s a really good question,” or “I’m so glad you asked me instead of someone else.” Even if we have to tell them we need to think about how to respond, starting out by affirming them for asking us makes this a positive experience.
When a son confesses that he has looked at porn, the first words out of our mouth can be, “Thank you for telling me.” We start by praising our son for being honest. There is no condemnation for confession. We can work on finding ways to prevent future exposure later.
When we discover our son has been viewing porn and he has not told us, we might start the conversation with, “You are not in trouble.” All accountability conversations start with affirmation, even when our son gets caught. Yes, we might restrict them from the internet or not let them go to a particular friend’s house for a while, but that is protecting them, not punishing our sons. Porn is harmful, yes, but it is not our son’s fault that it is attractive and they want to see it.
What our sons need most is a strong relationship with their dad, or with another adult if the dad is not around. Having clear boundaries is important. Doing our best to protect our sons from sexualized content is important. But none of that will work if our sons don’t care what we say or think. Building a close relationship with our sons makes them much more likely to embrace our ideals.
My Son’s Story
This was certainly true with my son. I had been talking with him about sex and accountability since he was eleven. When he was thirteen, unbeknown to me, he had found a way to view porn. He kept this secret for a month or two before finally coming clean and confessing to me what he had been doing.
I remember how tense he looked when he told me. He was unable to look me in the face. God must have been with me that moment because the first words out of my mouth were, “I’m so glad you told me.” His body visibly relaxed and I knew I had done something right for once.
A few years later we were talking about that incident. He told me that the reason he confessed is because we had been talking about sex and porn and I had told him about my troubles with those things when I was his age.
But, he also said that if I would have gotten mad—"tore him up" were his words I believe—he would have never been honest with me about porn again. He also said if I would have acted like I didn’t care or that it was no big deal he would probably not talked to me again either. He didn’t want me to not care, but he wanted me to care about him more than the mistake he had made.
What Lasting Looks Like
Having good accountability with your son does not mean he will stop making sexual mistakes once you build a good relationship with him. He will make plenty of mistakes. There will months or even years when he isn’t very invested in accountability with you. But if you continue to reach out to him with honesty, he will never forget that and likely return to accountability in the future.
When faced with a difficult situation with our son, we can ask ourself, “What can I say or do that will build our relationship long term?” rather than, “What can I do to stop his behavior right now?” This isn’t always easy but I have found it to pay off over time. That’s what lasting father-son accountability is all about.