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Today in America, puberty is beginning earlier than a generation ago. Researchers are debating the possible links to environmental chemicals, stress, and obesity. But regardless of cause, more and more kids are already well into puberty by the time sex education happens in school–which is usually fifth or sixth grade.
If you’re a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, your first introduction to puberty at school might be the play, Nightmare on Puberty Street. Going to see it is a middle school tradition here.
The show is fiction. But given the change in puberty’s timing, Youth Radio’s Donisha Dansby wanted to visit some real Bay Area schools, to listen in and find out what it’s like for kids who start puberty early. Donisha’s using only the first names of kids she interviewed, to protect their privacy.
One morning when she was eight, Rachael woke up and noticed something different about herself.
“I actually, honestly don’t really remember this, but what my mom told me, is that I woke up and I was like, ‘Hey Mom, what are these things on my chest? I don’t know what they’re doing there…’ and she had to explain it to me,” she said.
Rachael’s 15 now and fully grown. Back then, when puberty started, she still played like a little girl.
“Fairy princess clothes tend to be not well-made and revealing and stuff like that, so I was playing dress up even though I’d already started developing,” she said. “So there are some pictures of me in dress up clothes that are revealing or too tight in some areas.”
At school, Rachael stood out.
“Some of my friends had parents they weren’t as comfortable talking to about this kind of stuff. I was the person who answered a lot of other people’s questions,” she said.
That’s a weird position for kids! But some girls show signs of puberty even younger than Rachael did. Jaidyn was just six.
“Six when I got armpit hair, and I started wearing deodorant. And about nine when I started wearing a bra,” she told me.
By fourth grade, Jaidyn still hadn’t received any puberty education at school. Which left the conversation to her mom.
“Honestly it made me feel a little uncomfortable, but I did my best,” said Jaidyn’s mom, Marella. “I just brought her home some bras and said — ‘Here!’ And she put them on. So, I just tried to make it as easy for her as possible.”
But really, it’s not easy for parents or kids. That’s partly why schools offer puberty education — to help us not freak out.
Anne Peacock is a puberty ed teacher. In her class at Redwood Heights Elementary, I heard Oakland 5th grader, Isabel, quietly ask the question every girl wonders at that age, “Let’s say you get your period during class, what would you do then?” One her classmates answered, “Run!” while another raised the stakes, “What if you’re not allowed to? What if you’re doing testing?”
Ms. Peacock quiets the room and recommends that every fifth grade girl carry a personal pouch containing pads, and a fresh pair of underwear, since periods can start at anytime for girls this age.
“My personal view is that we should do some form of sexuality education from kindergarten onwards and that they are made to feel comfortable,” she said.
I spoke with fifth graders Isabel and Mila last spring at Flynn Elementary School in San Francisco, the week they were about to start puberty class. They had lots of questions!
Isabel: I feel like it’s important to learn, but it’s sort of like an awkward lesson.
Mila: I heard that while having your period you can get very moody, you can get very grouchy, like a roller coaster.
Isabel: Yeah, I heard that you have like a lot of different feelings at the same time like sad, happy and all of a sudden you’re angry.
Mila: I’m worried some of my friendships are gonna be on the line.
So I asked, why not talk to your parents about this stuff?
Mila: It’s awkward to talk to your mom about puberty and that kind of stuff, because it’s just one of those things you don’t want to talk to your mom about. It’s like boyfriends, you don’t want to talk to your mom about your boyfriend.
Isabel: Because then they might be like, ‘Oh my god you’re growing up!’
But we are growing up. Oftentimes way before we even hear the word “puberty” in class.
Dr. Louise Greenspan is a Pediatric Endocrinologist at Kaiser in San Francisco who is studying the causes and effects of early puberty. “I really feel like I’m on a mission now to make people understand that teaching kids about puberty in fifth grade is way too late,” she said.
To be clear, Greenspan is not saying little kids should be learning about sex in school. Instead, she says they should get the message that being physically mature doesn’t mean they’re ready for adult relationships. To Greenspan, kids who start puberty early don’t necessarily have a medical problem.
“But is it a disorder, as in there’s something wrong with our environment or there’s something wrong with what’s happening in the world? Maybe. Something changed, the girls don’t have a disorder, but maybe our world does,” said Greenspan.
While scientists try to find what’s causing early puberty, schools are left to figure out how to deal with what looks like a new normal.