Talking to Our Girls About Sex
Our girls are developing faster than we did. It's up to us to help them love their rapidly changing bodies and thrive in a sexually charged world. Here's how to face the War on Girls
You're out shopping with your favorite niece, a sixth grader, and you're shocked to discover that she already wears a junior size nine. Or your own preteen begs you for a midriff top and hip-hugging capri pants. You reluctantly give in but vow she'll never be seen "looking like that" at school.
Girls have always grown up faster than boys. But these days they're developing at a younger age than their mothers and grandmothers did. "Over the last several decades, puberty has been starting early," says Andrew Goldstein, an obstetrician-gynecologist who teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In previous generations, puberty usually started with breast development at age 10 or 11 and lasted through age 16 or 17. Today it typically starts around age 9. And as a group, Black girls seem to develop earlier than other girls. "It's not unusual to see a girl at 8 or even 7 with breast buds," says Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., codirector of the New York Center for Human Sexuality at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York and author of What Your Mother Never Told You About Sex.
What's Going On?
Medical experts aren't quite sure why girls are physically maturing earlier. One theory holds that growth hormones in meat, milk and other animal products may be triggering the change. Other theories point to genetics or to today's girls being better nourished than those of previous generations. Obesity has long been believed to play a role. But overweight girls aren't the only ones developing faster.
Most pediatricians advise mothers that there's no need to worry if their 8-year-old needs to wear a training bra or their 9-year-old starts menstruating. But look at the social context: Our culture is more sexually charged than ever, with fewer taboos and boundaries. According to a 1999 report by Kaiser Family Foundation, two thirds of primetime television programs feature sexual content, and an average of five scenes per hour depict sexual talk or behavior. Dare we mention the music videos? A National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy report notes that music videos objectify women--no surprise there--with 57 percent of women appearing partially clothed compared with 28 percent of the men.
We're also seeing a glorification of the nymphet--and she's getting younger and younger. A cute but grown-up-looking girl plants a grown-up kiss on a boy in Macy Gray's Sweet Baby video. At the end of the Destiny's Child video for Bootylicious, we see child versions of Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle. Combine these with the orgasmic aura of Britney Spears and Janet Jackson--both hugely popular among African-American girls--and Lil' Bow Wow's attempts to "pull" adult-looking women in his videos.
While those in the entertainment industry dismiss such images as harmless fun, experts warn that they encourage impressionable and fiercely devoted young fans to behave like adults before their time. For many young women, this can have lasting consequences. "If you don't have your girlhood when you're supposed to, you'll have it later," says Gaff E. Wyatt, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Delayed girlhood results in women who are immature, angry or unfocused, she explains. They may quit school or jobs prematurely because they never learned the lessons of adolescence before diving into womanhood. On the other hand, early womanhood can throw a girl into adult situations that she's not ready to handle.
Having the Talk
The good news is that by taking a holistic approach to our girls' development and truly maintaining responsibility for their spiritual, emotional, mental, physical and sexual development, we can help them better navigate the challenges that come with puberty. "Just as you prepare your child to read, you have to prepare them to deal with their sexuality," says Cheryl Doyle, M.D., associate director of pediatrics at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center in Brooklyn. It often seems that children don't listen to adults, but they actually greatly value what their parents say. According to a study by Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. and SmartGirl.com, nearly 80 percent of 8-to-12-year-olds said they turned to their mothers when they had a problem or needed advice. But when the topic is sex, too many of us clam up, secretly wishing our kids wouldn't ask, or we muddy the conversation with myths and euphemisms.
The time to start preparing for the talk is day one. From the time a child comes into the world, a diligent parent closely monitors all aspects of her development, from motor skills to verbal ability. As you read health books, parenting magazines and talk to your family pediatrician about physical and behavioral changes you observe, be sure you include those that may signal your daughter's evolving sexuality. For example, children spend the first four or five years of their lives discovering their mouth, fingers, toes--and their genitals. "It's very innocent body exploration, and because they get pleasure, they continue," Hutcherson says.
Such touching leads to questions about the child's own body. Then curiosity about their friends' bodies can turn into "playing doctor," or comparing genitals. This is not the time to freak out but to understand your child's natural curiosity. Nevertheless, parents should set boundaries. "We should explain that these are our private parts, and that's why we wear clothes," says Andrew Goldstein, the Baltimore OB-GYN. We should also begin to communicate to our children that no one else is allowed to touch their private parts.
The Stages of Puberty
The appearance of tiny breast buds or elevated nipples represents a major stage--called thelarche--in a girl's development. This is when a young girl's body starts producing estrogen. Soon afterward, the girl begins to develop fine hair under her arms and on her genitals; this is the stage called adrenarche. About a year after breast budding, the girl often has a growth spurt, gaining perhaps as much as four inches in a year.
So what does a mother do when her 8- or 9-year-old daughter's breasts begin to show? Hutcherson advises mothers to prepare their daughters for the physical changes, especially for the fourth stage of puberty, called menarche or the onset of menstruation. Up until this stage, girls associate blood with pain and injury. "Tell her it's a positive change, so she's not afraid of it," Hutcherson suggests. Help her understand that menstruation signals that her body is functioning normally.
Now is also a good time to start preparing girls for the attention they might receive from older males. "You're not worded about a 9-year-old calling up a male classmate, but you might be concerned about an older boy finding her attractive," Hutcherson says. She strongly advises that we teach our girls to watch out for untoward gestures and touches and to tell us if such a situation occurs. "Let the girl know that her body belongs to her," Hutcherson says firmly. "It's not appropriate for a boy, uncle or a father to manipulate her body." She doesn't have to hug or kiss even a relative if she doesn't want to.
The Mind-Body Gap
One of the most trying aspects of early puberty--trying for both parent and child is the gap between a girl's physical development and her psychological development. For a young girl, having a well-developed body can raise the stakes at a time when rebellion is becoming the norm. A teenage girl, who has the physical equipment but not the emotional maturity, can turn to sex to prove her independence, often with disastrous results.
Goldstein advises that parents, grandparents or other primary caregivers acknowledge their girl's conflicting feelings while teaching self-control, providing her with honest, straightforward information and setting realistic boundaries. "You can't tell a teenager that it's inappropriate to kiss a boy," he says. "That approach will backfire."
Birds, Bees and STDs
The fact is, one day your girl will have to make a decision about whether or not to have sex. Before her sexual hormones kick in at puberty, she needs to hear from a trusted adult about the consequences of becoming sexually active. It's up to you to make sure she has all the information she needs about how to protect herself from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unwanted pregnancies and emotional harm.
The stakes are agonizingly high. The risk of STDs to young girls is even greater than it is for older women, because their bodies don't yet produce sufficient amounts of the estrogen that gives the vagina some resistance to bacteria. As a result, the younger a girl is when she becomes sexually active, the more likely she is to contract a sexually transmitted infection. But we can help keep girls safe: According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, girls whose mothers talked to them about the benefits of condoms before their first sexual encounter were three times as likely to use them when they became sexually active.
Let your girl know that you are open and available to her, and she can come to you with any questions. (It helps if you've kept open lines of communication all along.) "Teens may not say much," Hutcherson observes, "but they are often relieved that their mothers want to talk about sex." Try these tips to get the conversation started:
Get the facts before you speak. Read all you can about sexual development and STDs before you approach your daughter. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., provides objective and free sexual-health information. Jot down what you want to discuss and practice saying it.
Talk with the doc. Ask your OB-GYN or your child's pediatrician for tips. You can give your child a feeling of growing independence by allowing her to have a private doctor-daughter discussion. Agree with your doctor beforehand how much wisdom to share with your girl.
Don't judge. Approach the conversation "with love, not anger," advises Hutcherson. And to avoid making your daughter defensive, it's a good idea to preface your talk with, "If and when you become sexually active...."
Be willing to hear your child. If your teen tells you she has decided to have sex, know that you may express disagreement with her choice, but you can't stop her if she's truly made up her mind. It is now your role to make sure she stays sexually healthy by giving her sound options for birth control.
"You need to talk to her and teach her, even if it seems she's not listening," says Hutcherson. Not giving your child the right information about condoms--and supporting her use of them--opens the door to the sometimes fatal risks associated with careless sexual behavior. Hutcherson adds that if you suspect, or know, that your child is already sexually active, suggest an appointment with an OB-GYN or a pediatrician who sees adolescents. Your daughter might be able to ask an outside professional what she can't yet bring herself to ask you.
She has an STD. Now what? Get her medical help at once. And let her know you're there for her. This is probably not the time to lecture her about protection, so choose your words carefully. Then when the time feels right, speak with her about her choices and their consequences.
If you and that young girl you care so much about can ultimately create an honest, compassionate and ongoing exchange, chances are she will learn to explore her sexuality in ways that ensure a healthier, more responsible and emotionally satisfying sexual future.
Consider these additional ways to give our daughters smart advice and support:
* Enroll your daughter in a rites of passage program through your place of worship or another organization. These programs help make a girl's journey into womanhood a memorable event while providing a healthy environment in which girls can discuss their changing bodies and relationships and explore other topics of interest to girls at this age.
* Monitor the media. That includes Internet sites, newspapers, magazines and television and radio programs to which your child is exposed. Talk to her about what she is seeing, hearing and reading.
* Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens--From Middle School to College (Newmarket Press, $24.95) by Debra W. Haffner, M.P.H., and Alyssa Haffner Tartaglione
* Don't Give It Away! A Workbook of Self-Awareness and Self-Affirmations for Young Women (Simon & Schuster Trade, $11) by Iyanla Vanzant and Almasi Wilcots
* What Your Mother Never Told You About Sex (Penguin USA, $27.95) by Hilda Hutcherson, M.D.
* Finding Our Way: The Teen Girls' Survival Book (HarperPerennial, $14) by Allison Abner and Linda Villarosa
* The What's Happening to My Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-up Guide for Parents and Daughters (Newmarket Press, $12.95) by Lynda Madaras with Area Madaras
* My Body, My Self for Girls: The What's Happening to My Body Workbook (Newmarket Press, $12.95) by Lynda Madaras and Area Madaras
* Before She Gets Her Period: Talking With Your Daughter About Menstruation (Perspective Publishing, Inc., $13.95) by Jessica B. Gillooly
* The Period Book: Everything You Don't Want to Ask (But Need to Know) (Walker & Co., $8.95) by Karen Gravelle and Jennifer Gravelle
* American Academy of Pediatrics http://www.aap.org/
* Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc. http://www.plannedparenthood.org/
* Vagisil Women's Health Center http://www.vagisil.com/
Abstinence--The Safest Sex
Advocates of abstinence point out that it's still the only sure way to prevent pregnancy and the transmission of such STDs as HIV or gonorrhea. They say that young people who choose not to have sex are also freed of the "emotional hangover" that intercourse can cause in even the most sexually liberated adult. Victoria Sloan, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and cofounder with her siblings of Flo's Kids Inc. in Houston, a spiritually based seminar series, advocates abstinence until marriage. The Black Church Initiative, a part of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, teaches how to broach the conversation about teen sexuality with young adults. To learn more about this program, call (202) 628-7700.
KIDS SAY THE DARNEDEST THINGS--AND SOME OF IT CATCHES US OFF GUARD
Here's some basic advice: First of all, don't freak out when your child asks you a sex-related question. Don't feel you have to be graphic (a simple basic answer will often do) and always use the correct terminology. "It's okay for a 4-year-old to say vagina," says Cheryl Doyle, M.D., associate director of pediatrics at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center in Brooklyn. "They know where the nose is, they know where the ears are, and they should know what their vagina is."
Here is what you might reply when your child says:
"Mommy, that's bootylicious!"
"Bootylicious! Now you tell me what that means." Anne Beal, M.D., a pediatrician and pediatrics instructor at Harvard Medical School, suggests that you use the discussion as an opportunity to help your daughter understand how it can be a good thing to define herself differently from the images she sees in the media.
"Mommy, Lamar called me a ho. What's a ho?"
"First of all, shame on Lamar. That's not a name anyone should ever call a friend or a girl he likes or respects. Ho puts down women like the word nigger puts down Black folks. Ho is actually street slang for whore, and if we look up w-h-o-r-e in the dictionary, it says a whore is a `woman who engages in sexual acts for money; a promiscuous or immoral woman.' Promiscuous means having sex with just about anybody or everybody. And immoral means unacceptable in the eyes of God or society. Do you think any of these definitions have anything to do with who you are and how you act? I bet Lamar didn't even know what he was saying, but if he or anyone ever calls you that again, you tell them you'll never answer to that ugly name because you deserve more respect. Then come tell me."
"Mommy, what's oral sex?"
Hilda Hutcherson, codirector of the New York Center for Human Sexuality at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, says when her young son asked her to explain the term he heard during the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal, she didn't mince words: "I said that sometimes people will find pleasure in putting their mouths on other people's private parts." She adds, "I told him that it's an adult activity." Gently but clearly explain to your child that oral sex is not something anyone should do to her or have her do. And if you're talking to an older child, explain that oral sex has risks: Experts are finding an increased number of cases of gonorrhea of the mouth and of oral herpes.