This Is So Awkward

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Boys Get Confused About Their Bodies, Too — Here's How To Talk To Your Tween About His Penis

Conversation helps ease worry, reduce self-consciousness, and manage expectations.

by Vanessa Kroll Bennett and Cara Natterson, MD
Originally Published: 

Our culture has created an unfair mythology around tween and teen boys: a kind of comic shorthand for them as hormone-crazed, acne-ridden maniacs sporting raging erections, furiously masturbating at every given opportunity. And yes, there is some truth to this caricature, which we explore in excruciating detail throughout our book, This Is So Awkward. However, these broad generalizations miss the nuances of male puberty, the biggest being that kids with penises have lots of questions, concerns, and feelings about their changing bodies. The image of a silent 12-year-old boy watching TV with his hands down his pants is a classic trope (and a fair one too), but we do a disservice when we assume that they don’t also have confusion or worries.

Consider this: in any given group of guys, some will have growing penises and testicles beginning in grade school, most by middle school and through high school, and a few even stretching into college. The path is not unlike breast development with measurable stages, but no one really talks about guy stuff this way. As a result, kids are conditioned not to ask about penile and testicular growth, only to joke about it or to act like it’s no big deal.

More: Puberty Is Starting Earlier Now — Here’s How To Talk To Your Daughter About Her Budding Breasts

This makes it seem as if guys don’t have questions, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Remember, as with all things puberty, appearances can be deceiving. Most kids really want to understand how they will grow and change. OK, some want to know exactly how big their penis will be, and the answer there is never anything except I don’t know. But the vast majority are generally looking for normalization of a long, drawn-out, mystifying process. If we don’t talk about it, some of them will develop the impression that one morning they will simply wake up with an adult-sized penis and testicles encircled by a shock of hair. Conversation helps ease worry, reduce self-consciousness, and manage expectations.

If you’re willing to try this, it will likely lead to an amazing conversation: ask your kids to share the nicknames and slang terms they know for different body parts.

Even though genetic males often go quiet in puberty, we can — and should — still talk to them about what’s happening. Their reticence does not give us an excuse for avoiding discussion ourselves; rather, it requires us to be more creative and, yes, persistent on the topic. Here’s how.

Talk about timing

While kids constantly compare themselves to each other in every way, penis comparisons are infamous. Which is why it’s important to state the obvious, something not always obvious to them: everyone’s penis will get bigger, but not necessarily at the same time, and when all is said and done they’ll wind up slightly different sizes and shapes. Early bloomers develop adult-size genitals years before late bloomers, timing that can feel tricky for all, even the ones smack in the middle.

Don’t forget the testicles

People often assume that testicles are perfectly round and exactly the same size, but no and no. All testicles have a small lump at the top, where the epididymis sits — and it’s not uncommon to mistake that for a worrisome mass when discovered. Also, most testicles aren’t exactly a matched pair: one is almost always slightly smaller than the other, and one sits slightly higher in the scrotum. All of this is normal, but if there’s a worry, encourage a conversation with your healthcare provider. Just like breasts and vulvas, testicles are not necessarily symmetrical — this knowledge can bring serious relief.

Lean into their lingo a little

We’re big believers in using anatomical names to minimize conversational confusion and encourage personal safety, so talk about a penis as a penis. That said, somehow the word testicle feels very formal, and many adults use the nickname balls instead. Just make sure you’re all clear on what you’re actually talking about from the get-go, and then use language that opens up dialogue without shutting it down. If you’re willing to try this, it will likely lead to an amazing conversation: ask your kids to share the nicknames and slang terms they know for different body parts. You’re guaranteed to laugh, you’ll have an opportunity to point out the absolute no-go words, and you’ll learn a new term or two for sure. If you haven’t heard the term junk, get ready to start there — it refers to the whole kit and caboodle.

Size doesn’t matter

This has always been an important thing to talk about with kids, but especially today, when the average age of a kid’s first exposure to porn is around 12 years old. In this context, penis size — always a big topic (sorry about the pun) — takes on outsized proportions (sorry, not sorry). It must be said in many ways and at many different times that penises come in all sizes and even shapes: some are curved and some are straight; some are circumcised and some have foreskins; and most of the time, they look nothing like the penises that belong to porn stars. Adult film actors tend to have much bigger penises than average, sometimes naturally and other times via cosmetic surgery. You have many years to cover all of this territory!

Erections happen all the time

Compared to when they were younger, most tweens and teens have lots more erections, some spontaneous and some thanks to imaginative thoughts or hands down the pants. Normalize it all! Help them come up with strategies to handle spontaneous erections, especially the ones that pop up at the most unfortunate moments (presentation in class, anyone?) to avoid waves of shame and humiliation. Come up with techniques for handling inconvenient erections, like the most popular one we hear: tucking it in at twelve o’clock. Talk about how an underwear style shift can make a big difference, since tighter briefs hide more than loose boxers. And try to avoid the common embarrassing erection moment that happens when you walk into their room to wake them up in the morning and there it is. Here’s an easy solution: an alarm clock! Or, knock and then actually wait for permission to open the door before barging in.

Keep the touching private

Kids deserve to know what parts of their bodies feel good so that as they grow and mature they can appreciate the pleasure their bodies offer. But on the couch in the den while the whole family is watching a movie? No thanks. So talk about self-pleasure, but also talk about self-pleasuring in private, ideally in a bedroom or bathroom with the door closed.

There’s no shame in any of this . . . including wet dreams

Older guys often describe to us in great detail the shame and embarrassment they feel around having wet dreams — not just teens, but grown men reflecting back on their adolescence. This is a perfect example of the pitfalls of assumptions: when boys don’t openly talk about stuff or ask questions, they don’t feel things deeply. Very few kids want to raise this particular subject, but they’re all relieved to learn that wet dreams are completely normal, not to mention that it’s easy to spot-clean sheets or run a load of laundry. An awkward conversation suddenly turns into a double teachable moment!

Hear from someone “just out the other side:” S.H., he/him, age 19:

In middle school, I was often confused because my penis became erect randomly. Luckily, many of my friends experienced a similar phenomenon. We discussed ways to combat the issue in class. We eventually discovered the term NARB, which stands for No Apparent Reason Boner. When someone would get a NARB, you would simply waistband your boner in your underwear to hide it. Any underwear worked with this method. I would wear athletic underwear, which masked my erection well. However, you would have to waistband your boner discreetly. If a girl saw, she would often reveal that you had a boner, and it was shameful. When someone was caught waistbanding, it was difficult. Everyone in our grade would find out. I remember one of my friends was crying in the bathroom after a girl spread rumors about his erection during a class. My worst nightmare was a girl seeing my boner through my pants.

The worst aspect of someone else seeing your bulge was the fact that girls would tell their friends about how small it is. The size of your penis often correlates to your masculinity. If a girl said your penis was small, it was one of the most demeaning insults. When guys and girls began hooking up, I would often waistband my penis to ensure the girl could not comment on the size of my penis.

The most difficult part of erections in middle school was when a girl gave you a hug. My friends and I all experienced hugs from developed girls, which made us go crazy. I remember the first time I got an erection from a girl, I freaked out after. Luckily, she was mature and understood that it was a natural reaction. At the time, I did not understand why I would get erections. I think the fact that I did not understand parts of my body was confusing to deal with.

Excerpted from THIS IS SO AWKWARD copyright © 2023 by Vanessa Kroll Bennett and Cara Natterson, MD. Used by permission of Rodale Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained is available now wherever books are sold and your local library.Rodale Books

Cara Natterson, MD, is a pediatrician and New York Times bestselling author; Vanessa Kroll Bennett is a puberty educator and writer. Together, they co-authored This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained (Rodale Books, October 2023), host The Puberty Podcast, and run Order of Magnitude, the leading brand dedicated to flipping puberty positive. Cara and Vanessa can be found on Instagram and TikTok @spillingthepubertea. Perhaps their biggest cred, however, is that between them, they parent six teens.

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