Puberty Girl visits our home frequently these days. She’s 13 years old, and she wears a bra, smears deodorant under her arms and drags a razor across her legs. She gets her period, and frequently changes her pad or knots a sweatshirt around her waist to cover up an unsightly stain.
My 5-year old daughter created Puberty Girl. The juicy details of adolescence have also captured the attention of my 7-year-old, but she has yet to create an imaginary representation of her curiosity.
I frequently share the escapades of Puberty Girl with my friends, and their responses run the gamut. Some parents gush with support and admiration. “It’s SO great you’re starting these conversations early,” while others laugh it off. “You’re going to be so screwed in a few years.” (Yes, I know, thank you for that.) Lots of folks change the subject.
Not one person has responded by saying they intend to start a similar conversation with their kindergartner or first-grader. I get it. An in-depth exploration of the menstrual cycle and the difference between training bras and sports bras at this age wasn’t part of my Master Parenting Plan. (Never you mind that I don’t actually have a Master Parenting Plan. That’s not the point. The point is that I didn’t set out to teach health class each night.)
It all started when the girls and I were wandering the aisles at The American Girl Store (God help me) several months ago, where I spotted a book called “The Care and Keeping of You 1: The Body Book for Younger Girls.” I imagined that one day I might want to teach my daughters something about their bodies, so I briefly scanned the book before buying it. I suspected we weren’t quite ready to talk about tampons, so I shoved it in the back of the junk drawer. A few weeks ago, my adorably eager new reader discovered the slim volume while looking for a Sharpie (don’t ask). Less than 24 hours later, the title had jumped to the top of our Bedtime Bestseller List, and Puberty Girl was born.
Many of our conversations explore topics that are important but unremarkable; we read about healthy eating, staying active and how to get a better night’s sleep. Much to my surprise, even our talks about pimples and pubic hair leave me squirming less frequently than I would have expected. The girls’ curiosity, thoughtfulness and complete lack of embarrassment or shame about their own bodies pushes me past my discomfort with these topics, as memories of poorly-managed periods and “pizza face” comments resurface after years of gathering dust in the recesses of my mind.
About once a week, I emphasize two important points as we read. First, the girls’ bodies aren’t ready for puberty yet, and we don’t know when they’ll grow breast buds, feel the effects of PMS or require a shower every day. Second, I remind them that while they can bring this up with Mommy and Daddy anytime they want, they aren’t allowed to talk about it at school. No, it’s not a secret, I tell them, but these are very personal conversations and every family gets to decide for themselves when the time is right to have them.
I questioned how this would turn out, but after a few bedtime puberty parties, I believe that these are crucial conversations to have at this age. I’m glad we didn’t start any earlier, though. My daughters now grasp the concept of time; they don’t worry about waking up tomorrow with dark hair growing under their arms or on their legs.
As they incorporate themes of puberty into their imaginary play, they’re gaining a deep understanding and mastery of this information that will serve them well once their bodies do start changing. Adolescence is unsettling enough even with accurate information, and discussing these topics will be increasingly challenging as they become the new reality in our home. By learning how to talk about our bodies now, my daughters and I are creating a context and skill base that will serve us well through the years ahead.
Despite all of this, I understand the discomfort that many of my friends have expressed when I’ve shared this story. Talking about menstrual blood, the size and shapes of our breasts, and body odor can be awkward, embarrassing and just plain gross. It dredges up painful memories. Perhaps most importantly, the inextricable link between adolescence and sexuality brings us ever closer to one of the most complex, nuanced and fraught issues that we face as parents. This puberty talk can feel like a gateway activity that will only lead to even more difficult discussions.
I know all of this from experience. But my daughters don’t.
As they have yet to weather the storms of confusion and comparison that characterized adolescence for so many of us, nothing about this leaves them blushing or searching for the right words or desperately wishing they could stall until their parenting partner comes home to pick up where they left off. Talking about their periods distresses them about as much as talking about their poop does, which is to say, not at all.
And this isn’t about me. It’s about them, and their awareness of — and comfort with — their own bodies. Each time I can let go of my anxiety, and stay present with their questions as I normalize their experience, I’m modeling the kind of engaged curiosity I hope they will carry with them throughout adolescence, and their lives. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the latest adventures of Puberty Girl.
Carla Naumburg, PhD is a clinical social worker and the author of Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family.
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