Rather than let challenges to accountability frighten us away, we can anticipate potential problems and address them early on. By planning ahead, we can gain confidence to start needed conversations about pornography, sex, and healthy habits. Some of these challenges are related to our children but others are solely in our court as parents.
Let’s take a look at three areas that seem to cause the greatest amount of anxiety surrounding accountability: getting started with accountability, keeping accountability consistent, and keeping the focus of our conversations clear.
1. The Challenge of Getting Started
For some parents, just getting started with accountability in the first place is the greatest challenge. We may tell ourselves it is too much work or we can’t find a good time to start. We may believe we don’t know what to say or do. However, I think the real reason behind these excuses is we fear accountability will be uncomfortable and awkward. The honest truth is, it probably will be at first.
When we really want to do something with our children we make it happen. We have less trouble surmounting obstacles to go fishing, hiking, attend a sporting event, go to a concert, or visit a museum. The difference is, we aren’t so sure how excited we are about doing accountability with our kids.
We recently held a youth focus group with 30 teenagers on accountability. We asked them to anonymously respond to a parent who fears accountability will make their kid feel uncomfortable. Here are a few responses from teenagers ages 13-15:
- “Your child will be uncomfortable. It is normal.”
- “Wouldn’t you rather your child be uncomfortable than making mistakes that will hurt them?”
- “Some conversations need to be had and it might be weird but it will be better in the long run.”
- “This is an excuse for yourself being uncomfortable. Step out of your comfort zone.”
As a parent, those comments are quite convicting. I don’t like it when teenagers point out flaws in my thinking. However, these teens do have a point. No one enjoys being uncomfortable, but we should not let it stand in our way of doing what we know we need to do.
Moving Through Discomfort
The best way I have found to move through this challenge is to set a date for the first or next conversation. Even if I don’t yet know what I’m going to say, I put a date on the calendar. I also tell my kid to put it on theirs. This deadline is my incentive to prepare; otherwise I might keep putting it off.
Then get a resource to help us prepare. Ideally it is something we can read or view with our child so we do not need to memorize what to say to them. A couple of good resources for this are:
- Equipped: Raising Godly Digital Natives. This resource walks parents through how to have age-appropriate conversations with their kids about safe use of technology and topics related to sex and pornography.
- Honest Talk: A New Perspective on Talking to Your Kid About Sex. A new book on how to start conversations about sex, pornography, and similar topics with boys or girls.
- Father-Son Accountability. A short resource specifically for fathers and sons to help them start these conversations.
2. The Challenge of Consistency
We feel great when we finally have the courage to have that first accountability meeting with our child. It can feel like a huge weight lifted off our shoulders. That feeling of relief, however, can sometimes lull us into complacency about keeping our conversations going.
Accountability has more to do with feelings than whether or not our kids are tying to access pornography. Initial exposure to pornography could be accidental or due to curiosity, but ongoing use is more about coping with painful feelings. We do not wait until our child “messes up” by looking at something inappropriate online to talk. We need to talk with them about their feelings all the time.
You may decide to have a weekly meeting to discuss accountability. Some parents call those “Man Talks” or “Women Talks” to help kids embrace them as a part of growing up. Other parents do not set up a specific time to talk but make talking about feelings, including sexual feelings, a normal part of family life.
In either case, our role as parent is to keep these conversations going. Perhaps one day we try to talk to our kid and they don’t want to talk. We do not look forward to trying again when that happens.
When we fail to pursue intimate conversations with our children, even when they seem to be pushing us away, the relationship always suffers. When we set the expectation that we are going to be sharing our personal feelings, then stop, the message children receive is that we don’t actually care about their feelings. We really need to follow through.
Life gets busy. It really is challenging to be consistent with these. Here are a few things that have helped me and that I’ve seen other parents have success with:
- Write it on your calendar. If you see yourself not being very consistent, make an official appointment with your kid. That doesn’t mean spontaneous conversation doesn’t happen as well, but it prevents us from going too long without talking.
- Tell your spouse or another parent to ask you how these conversations with your kid are going. When we tell another adult what we are doing and ask them to check in with the progress, we are far more likely to be consistent.
- Don’t be discouraged when your kid doesn’t want to talk. This is going to happen now and then. We can assure them that we care about them and their feelings, which is why we want to talk. Then we can try again another day.
- Don’t give up if when you are inconsistent. There were times when I missed scheduled meetings with my kids. Stuff comes up, for us and our kids that get in the way. Sometimes we don’t talk for way too long. That does not mean the talking we have done to that point does not count. Put another date on the calendar and try again.
3. The Challenge of Focus
This is the most important challenge for us to overcome as parents. We really do love our children more than they understand. They are more important to us than any other humans on earth. Sometimes, however, our overwhelming love for them causes us to do unhelpful things, even in accountability.
The focus of accountability is not whether or not they look at pornography. It is not the kind of music they listen to or the friends they hang out with. We certainly hope they make wise choices in these areas, but accountability is not a means of forcing them to behave. Trying to force an adolescent to “behave” almost always backfires.
This is hard because we get afraid when our children become honest and tell us what is happening around them. We become anxious when we discover what they have seen or done online. We may react out of fear in ways that are not helpful to the accountability relationship, and cause our children to stop sharing. When we focus only on protection, accountability is not well received, especially as our children near adulthood.
On the other hand, we can focus too much on wanting to be liked. When our kids do open up and tell us very personal feelings, it feels good. It is tempting in that vulnerable environment to want to be seen as the cool parent, the parent who understands their world, or who is like a peer to our child. That is not the focus of accountability and is not what our kids need from us anyway. A child can feel their parent is a complete dork, yet gain a lot of help through accountability with them.
The Real Focus of Accountability
The primary focus of accountability, far above all else, is relationship. Not relationship as you had when your child was little, but a deeper, more open and vulnerable relationship. The goal is the kind of relationship that causes a child to feel completely safe coming to us with their greatest pain. That takes time to develop.
To make such relationship possible, we will have to be vulnerable and share our own stories, pain, doubts, and fears with them. We will have to model for them what it looks like to trust someone. We will have to react to their honest admissions of failure with empathy, not anger. We will have to take interest in their opinions, even if we do not agree with them.
Pornography use is not going to go away without an alternative that eases emotional pain at least as well as pornography can. The healthiest way to address emotional pain, confusion, anxiety, and disappointment is being fully known and fully loved by others. Accountability is offering an alternative to pornography.
Our kids may or may not do well resisting pornography in our hyper-sexual world. Through accountability, we show them what healthy adult relationships look like. We teach them the tools to escape pornography, should they decide to use them. When relationship is the key focus of accountability, we keep the door open for our children to seek us out to help them, even after they leave home.
Imagine you are talking with your child and they share something that scares you. Before you say or do anything, stop and consider what that will do to your relationship with them. If it will damage your relationship, don’t do or say it. Relationship trumps all.
That does not mean you cannot give consequences to your child. You can still put limits on the devices you are allowing them to use. You can still restrict them from going to unsafe friends’ houses. You can still ask them to earn your trust.
But, never withhold your love. Your relationship with them should have nothing to do with how well they manage temptation. Any consequences you give your child for “messing up” should have nothing to do with your relationship. Here is how that looks:
- When your child tells you they “messed up” and looked at pornography, the first words you say are, “I’m so glad you told me.”
- When your child stands in front of you looking ashamed because of what you caught them doing, you hug them instead of lecturing them.
- If you are planning to go camping and they look at porn three days before the trip, you still go. The trip will build relationship, which is the replacement for pornography.
- After they admit to purposefully looking at porn, you deal with any consequences and then go play something they enjoy, like basketball or a board game. Show them this leaves them feeling better than pornography does.
If you haven’t started having conversations about how to resist pornography, put a date on your calendar. Even if you can’t start for a month, get a date set. If you used to talk and have stopped, pick a date to restart. Get a resource to make it easier. Let’s stop allowing our nervousness get in the way.
Ask your spouse or another parent to remind you to keep talking with your child. Don’t rely on your own willpower; get the help of someone who cares about you and your family. We live in community and this is what community is for.
Focus on your relationship with your child. Porn will remain hard to resist until your child has a better alternative to feeling better when they are anxious or disappointed. Relationship is the alternative, so invest in it heavily.
You are the right parent for this job! This is not too hard. You really can do this.