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Six steps to recalibrating puberty education for the 21st century

I am currently reading and contemplating on The New Puberty by Amanda Dunn (great read, by the way), which has confirmed that the clutches of puberty are encroaching further into childhood than ever before. Some people believe that this early development is the end of childhood as we know it, as previous models of puberty education have been packaged with sex and relationships education more suitable for teenagers.

I don’t believe that this is the beginning of the end. Like anything that changes with time, it means that we need a pro-active strategy in how we educate and empower our children. A recalibration of our approach to puberty education with developmentally appropriate resources and conversation starters is what is really required.

Here are six ways we need to respond to our children, developmentally.

  1. We need to keep a check on our expectations.

If a child noticeably develops before their peers, different expectations seem to be applied to their maturity. Although the child may be taller and more physically mature than their friends, they are still exactly that – a child. They may not be ready for independent responsibilities that you would expect of an early teenager or older child. Socially, they will still have the same struggles as their age-related peers. It is really important to encourage them to act their age, and not burden them with expectations that belong to older children.

To give an example, I once overheard, ‘Should that child still be playing with Shopkins at her age?’ The child in question was eight years old – so, yes. Just because she is undergoing puberty at a younger age, does not mean that her desire for age-appropriate childhood play should stop. Some children may have the beginnings of an adult body, but they are still not adults.

  1. We need to educate about body changes before they happen, not in the midst of it

 Teaching children about the changes that they will go through at the same time we are buying them pads and razors is unlikely to equip them with success and confidence. The body education our children need should ideally occur before these changes happen, that way, they are not unexpected or difficult to deal with. Which brings me to my next step….

  1. We need to educate in an age-appropriate way, using correct terminology 

Many adults shy away from the puberty talk with younger children because they don’t feel their children are ready for the sex talk yet. Fortunately, there are many resources that deal primarily with puberty without any mention of sex or sexuality. This can be a great place to start the conversation. Some parents may want to introduce the sex talk at the same time, whereas other families feel their children would benefit from learning about puberty first. Fortunately, there are books that suit both purposes.

Two awesome starting points are:

Help! I’m a Tweenager – Rosie Luik (girls’ puberty)

I’m a Boy – Special Me and I’m a Boy – My Changing Body –  Shelley Metten (boys’ puberty)

These books require adult interaction, as the reading level of the content is not quite as simple as picture books, and there is some mention of puberty’s role in fertility, though not sexual content as such.

Or for the comprehensive, illustrated introduction to almost everything sex and puberty for younger children:

The Amazing True Story of how Babies are Made, which I reviewed here.

Unfortunately, this one doesn’t talk much about managing periods (which is very important for young girls), but it introduces all things related to puberty and sexuality and serves as a solid introduction. All of the above resources use correct terminology. It is really important that children hear the proper names for their body parts and not slang words, which can encourage shame and embarrassment.

Reading the books alone first can help with nailing the terminology and dissolving awkward feelings. The best place to start this conversation may be in the car on the way to school (for parents), and in the form of a Q and A dialogue (for educators). Have fun with it! After all, these changes happen to everyone, so we should be able to talk about them without feeling weird – this sets a positive example for the children in our care.

  1. We need to encourage physical activity and find ways to mitigate the sometimes-negative impacts of puberty on participation in sport and other activities 

A young woman in black boxing gloves kissing one of her gloves

Physical activity and other childhood hobbies have benefits for a child’s mental and physical health, although some activities can become difficult once children begin puberty, particularly if they are developing faster than the children around them. This is when we need to be pro-active and provide strategies that support continued participation, without the child needing to ask – this could include getting a quality sports bra fitted, teaching a girl how to manage periods in various situations, and discussing adequate protection for boys who play contact sports. It is really important to nip this one in the bud so children are empowered to continue participating without the awkwardness of needing to ask. Which brings me to my next step…

  1. We need to instil body confidence, relentlessly

Alongside the practicalities of helping children to stay engaged with their interests, we need to explicitly reinforce the idea that it is still useful for a child to be physically active, even as their body matures. Although there are many positive role models in every sport, it can’t be left up to chance for a child to realise that their bodies are amazing vessels that are capable of doing challenging things, even after they have matured. Body comparison will begin alongside these changes too, so it is important to explain (repeatedly!) that bodies are diverse and feeling confident in your own skin is what matters most. Drawing attention to a range of capable role models with different body types can help to dispel the myth that there is only one image to aspire to.

Shirtless boy squeezing and playing with large inflatable ball near parked car in Oceanside

The average timing and considerations of puberty may have changed over the last couple of generations, but that doesn’t mean that children should lose their childhood because we are scared to talk about it. We need to keep on reviewing our approach to ensure that our children receive the best and most age-appropriate education that will equip them to pass through these inevitable transitions with their confidence intact.

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