It's no news to most that the average age of puberty for girls is declining. Recently, at an American Academy of Pediatrics Conference, this was a topic of discussion. The decline is quite steep. In 1960 the age of puberty was 14, today it's 11. Side note: we're talking about puberty (breasts, hips, pubic hair), not first period.
Early puberty certainly comes with medical implications but we also need to think about the psychological implications, which I believe we need to address in our homes and our schools.
In a Harris Interactive Poll that my own company, HelloFlo, conducted this summer we asked parents with daughters under 18 living in their household who have not gotten their period how prepared they felt to discuss it with her. Only 50 percent said they felt very prepared.
While I can't ask these parents what makes them feel underprepared I have spoken to many parents and teens in the past few years about this topic so I can confidently hypothesize that the issue isn't really preparation. It's comfort. Ours and our children's'.
Try talking to an adolescent boy or girl about their changing bodies. They won't want to talk to you about it. But that's not a reason to avoid a conversation. And if you need more reasons, keep reading.
We are living in a world where our children are being exposed to more media than ever before and the images they are seeing objectify girls and women. American youth spend, on average, 900 hours a year in school and an average of 1,023 hours a year watching television. Got that? More time in front of TV than in front of teachers. Multiple studies of modern media have found that women more than men are portrayed in a sexual manner. Research links exposure to sexualized female ideals with lower self-esteem, negative mood and depressive symptoms among adolescent girls and women.
So if you don't talk to her, it's not that she won't learn. She will -- but you definitely need to be wary of who is doing the teaching.
We have come to accept as the norm stories of high school parties that involve binge drinking and hooking up as a way to progress in social status. Yet we claim to be scandalized by articles that paint a highly sexualized portrait of teen behavior on social media.
As parents and educators we need to confront our own hang-ups and start getting comfortable talking to our children about their biology, and yes -- even sex. Especially sex. If you allow these topics to be stigmatized in your own home, your child won't tell you what's going on in his or her life.
It's not just talk, we also need to be brave about saying no to our children. A mother I know recently told me that her 11-year-old daughter was terribly upset that she wasn't allowed to have an Instagram or ask.fm account. The mom thought the sites inappropriate, but at her daughter's urging she decided to reconsider. She agreed to spend an evening doing research in order to develop a more informed opinion.
The next morning they had a talk -- about why she (the mother) hadn't changed her mind. She told her daughter what she had found. Bullying, "creepy" men following her friends on Instagram, as well as some selfies that could easily be described as inappropriate.
This family has a particularly open relationship where conversations like this can take place. In many families, kids are online without supervision. Even though parents know they should be more involved, many avoid it for fear of what they might find. If you find something, you'll be forced to confront it and maybe make some unpopular decisions.
The fact is we live in an always "on" and very visual society. It's uncomfortable but we need to make sure our daughters know that people are going to start noticing their changing bodies. But she should also know that doesn't mean that her body is the totality of who she is. It's not currency to be traded for social status (both online and off).
We can't forget about our boys. Puberty is starting earlier for them too. Just because they won't bleed, doesn't mean they don't deserve education about their changing bodies and the changing bodies of the girls around them. Let's give them the tools to navigate this world in a well-adjusted way.
For too long, the narrative has been that these conversations with our kids are taboo. Whoever invented that myth was horribly mistaken. It is human nature to fear what we don't know. The easiest way to combat that fear is to arm ourselves the ample amounts of legitimate information that's out there. As parents, we cannot be afraid of not having all of the answers. That's how the most earnest and effective conversations start. Our kids may be growing up faster than we did, but that doesn't mean we have to be afraid of that growth -- or growing up with them for that matter.
Louis CK said it best, "I'm not raising the children, I'm raising the grown ups that they're going to be." Remember that these guys are going to have young ones of their own. You're literally shaping generations to come. Shouldn't we be doing that to the best of our abilities?