** This post was originally written in May 2012. The language around gender is binary, which was typical for the time. Today, gender non-binary kids go through these changes to their bodies as well but they may not identify as girl or boy (and that’s okay). Puberty education and the language is catching up to the kids and is now more inclusive.
My oldest daughter Marcia is nine years old and in the fourth grade. “Puberty Education” does not happen until the NEXT ACADEMIC YEAR where we live here in Northern California. Lots of the girls in her grade are starting to notice changes in their bodies. Their mothers are left wondering what to do. Some mothers asked the school counselor to form a “girl’s group” where these girls meet with the counselor to talk about pre-puberty and the changes that are coming. I’m a little disappointed: this group is being treated as a secret. It’s not something they want to mention to the boys.
Wait a minute. Don’t boys go through puberty too?
Not the most positive way to spin a potentially exciting time in a child’s life.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of sex-positive ways to approach puberty education in the home.
I have a friend Jean who has a nine-year-old daughter Kelly. My friend and I are very close and our kids play together when we are hanging out. Our three kids have spent a lot of time together so we’re all pretty comfortable. It’s not uncommon at a sleepover that one or all three of these girls, once they are out of their day clothes, will take their own sweet time getting their pajamas on and run around naked for a little while. It’s actually quite amusing.
Well, Kelly turned 9 years old and is going through puberty right now too. She has breast buds and body odor and pubic hair and all. This kid is completely cracking me up. She is so excited about the changes that are happening to her body. She is often the first to get undressed and the last to get dressed again. She’s so proud of her developing body. It’s so wonderful to see how happy she is! Why shouldn’t she be happy? Imagine how much happier a lot of us adult women would be if we were also so completely satisfied with our own bodies.
The best part so far is that when Kelly got her first two pubic hairs (that’s right, two. lol) she named them. I thought it was so cute. She gave each hair a name: Jack and Lola. Hilarious. Kelly left for Winter Break and when she came back she didn’t talk much about it¦ until I asked her how Jack and Lola were. Then she enthusiastically shared that a lot more hair had grown in. She told me it was almost too many to name! So we jokingly came up with “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. She loved it.
My friend Jean knows that I’m a sex educator and has heard me talk to my own kids many times. In a way, I think Jean is happy Kelly is around when we’re having these talks.
Note to self: I must not let my friend get away with this¦ It’s important for these conversations to happen between the child and his or her parents.
Another one of my good friends, Mary, has a daughter who is starting to go through puberty at 9 as well. Mary and I have been friends for a long time and she has been around throughout my graduate education in sexuality. She knows and understands very clearly what I have been advocating from the beginning of my studies. She has been ready to be open with her daughter Beth about the changes that will occur to her body during puberty. She’s also been actively listening for whenever her daughter Beth would start asking questions.
Mary called to share this story with me: One day Beth called Mary into the bathroom while she was taking her shower. Beth told Mary that she noticed a hair on her vulva. She told her mom she thought it was not attached so she tried to pull it away and she was shocked that IT WAS ATTACHED! Mary told Beth lovingly that it was ok and told her that was part of becoming a woman. Her daughter whined how she didn’t WANT to become a woman, at least not yet. The two of them had a brief heart-to-heart about a few other changes to anticipate (menstruation and breasts) and it all went very well.
Previously, Mary complained that her baby was such a Daddy’s Girl. As a result, she felt alienated from her daughter. But since this discussion, Mary said this mother-daughter pair has become very close – to the point that Beth wants to spend more time with mom instead of dad! Mary knows that this particular change might not last but is enjoying it right now.
My question is this:
If the parents in my two examples weren’t open to having these conversations, who would the girls talk to? Where would they go for answers? Would these changes freak them out? It’s a whole year before puberty education is addressed in school. If a parent was there to shame her about the nakedness, would body image issues develop at that point?
So, do you think it’s too soon to talk to these kids about puberty? I don’t think so. If I were a kid, I would rather know the coming attractions than be shocked, confused, or scared about that changes were happening to me, especially if no one was explaining them to me. Change can be scary if you don’t know it’s coming. If you have some sort of expectation it takes away a little bit of fear. Puberty happens. Puberty education is needed. Generally speaking, it’s not something that we are able to stop (it can be delayed in some situations but that is something that requires serious consideration).
I think these two examples are a non-threatening, non-fear-based approach. Please don’t mistake me; I am not criticizing the parents for asking the school counselor to have the talks — It is giving the girls information, right? I’m sure it’s comfortable and what they thought best. Puberty education doesn’t need to be left to the school though. Parents can get the help they need from coaches like me. Chances are their parents didn’t know how to talk to them when they were young and, now that they are parents, they don’t know what to say either.
When to begin
If your kids are in third, fourth, or fifth grade, make sure that you take time to observe behaviors and changes going on with their peers, cousins, or your kids and mention it. It’s easy to start a discussion with that as a lead-in. Puberty can happen sooner than you would expect, and you can help make this a really fun and exciting time in their lives.