The puberty talk needs a serious overhaul. Think back to how your parents handled “the talk.” It would be a rare thing to hear anyone enjoyed sitting through that lesson — parent or child.
The content likely focused on a magical transformation into adulthood, and the delivery may have leaned heavily on shame and fear. Some puberty talks probably included a few myths and misinformation. These ineffective puberty talks underserved both boys and girls. The old way of approaching the conversation, if it occurred at all, often perpetuated hypermasculinity in boys and body shaming in girls. But if we want to raise feminist boys and confident girls, then it’s time we modernized the puberty talk.
So when is the right time to talk to your child about puberty? If you think it should start when they’re teenagers, then you’ve missed the mark. Most girls experience menarche — actually let’s stop right there. What is menarche? Well, it’s pronounced men-ark-ee, and it’s the term for a girl’s first menstrual cycle. The average age of menarche is 12 years old, but puberty actually starts in girls around two years before that. That means you may want to start talking to girls about puberty at around 10 years old.
Boys experience puberty between 9 and 14 years old, so you may want to start the conversation at a similar age to girls. And remember, this conversation is not a one-time thing. It’s a talk that will take place over the course of a few years. So if your child is on the younger side, you could see this as an opportunity to lay the foundation for open communication. You can give them a heads up on physical changes to come — like body hair, acne, and growth spurts — if you’re not ready to dive into the sex education part of the talk just yet.
One thing is for certain, the traditional equation between puberty and adulthood is an absolute myth that needs to be dispelled right now. Ten-year-old boys and girls are not adults, and they shouldn’t be burdened by this false take on maturation. The aim should be to encourage your children to see you as a source of support during this phase of development. They should be made to feel secure that if anything inappropriate should happen, they are not tiny adults who can fix their own problems. They are your children, and they can come to you for help if they ever need it.
Modernizing the puberty talk includes changing the context, too. It’s time to do away with the stigma and shame surrounding periods. Menstruation is the very system that enables the human race to reproduce! That’s incredible when you think about it. Let’s lead with that source of empowerment when we talk to young girls. But reframing menstruation when talking to girls is only half the battle.
Instilling an appreciation for gender equality can’t begin early enough in boys. So instead of segregating the puberty talk as it used to be done, modernizing it would mean talking to boys about what girls go through as well. Demystifying puberty and reproduction with a tone of respect for the human body, not shame and disgust, could help boys and girls cope with these changes in each other.
Reimagining puberty talks could be bolstered by cross-functional parent chats as well. What would that look like? Well, instead of dividing up labor by the parent’s sex, both mom and dad could contribute to the puberty talk. Yes, it’s great for a boy to have a father who will usher him into this transformative stage with a sense of confidence and assurance. But daughters would benefit just as much if fathers contributed to a more empowering take on their development.
Remember, it’s not all about bodies, either. While hormones contribute to behavioral changes, it’s important to include guidance on uncharted emotional territory as well. Acknowledge that your child may be experiencing feelings of insecurity, distress, or isolation.
Pubescent children will embark on new relationship formations at this time, too, and they may be experiencing attraction or impulses they’ve never felt before. Are you prepared for what you would say to your child if they felt a sense of attraction to someone of the opposite or the same sex? What if they told you they were uncomfortable in their own sex? These are heavy topics to consider, but you don’t want to be caught unprepared should they come up.
We can’t think about modernizing our approach to puberty without taking into account technology. The digital environment offers unlimited resources to aid you in the puberty talk. From videos to ebooks to period trackers, the internet can be a great source of support. But it can also be fertile ground for misinformation, cyberbullying, and pedophiles. It’s important to safeguard your children and talk to them about what they might find online and how to navigate these choppy waters.
There are no cookie-cutter kids, so there is no one right way to embark on this new topic of conversation with your child. It’s a conversation that will continue to evolve as time goes on. Parts of the discussion may take place face to face or over text. Opportunities for discussion may spring from a commercial on TV or a shopping trip. The important thing is to move past your own sense of hesitation or embarrassment and embrace the conversation. Even if you don’t have all the answers, let your kid know you can journey down this road together.