Most girls will begin their periods about two years after first noticing breast buds. Boys experience many of the same changes as well usually a couple of years later – beginning sometime between ages 11 and 13. They will notice pubic and underarm hair, more active seat glands, and the enlargement of their penis and scrotum. He may also occasionally have a wet dream. It is good for young boys to know this may happen so he doesn’t go through the worry that something is wrong with him or he has wet the bed! (Kids are so relieved to know they are normal, their bodies are growing and changing just as they are intended to, and how to care for their bodies as they do.) As with girls, the changes of puberty for boys will often unfold over four to six years. Because these ages are averages, and your child could begin changes even earlier than this, it will be important that you have had conversations about periods and wet-dreams along the way. I remember when I was ten one of my best friends who was spending the night, started her period. She was shocked – as was I! Her mom hadn’t thought to talk about this yet. Thankfully I had a nonchalant Swedish mom who was completely comfortable dealing with this, had already talked to me about it, and dealt with it with complete grace and compassion. This same girlfriend and I (now many years later) were just talking about this story the other day. It is the kind of event you don’t easily forget!
One of the things I love in our community here in Seattle, is a program at our Children’s Hospital on growing up for moms and daughters, and dads and sons. This program is for kids 8 – 10 years old and helps kick-start the conversation for parents who are finding it hard to begin. Many communities have programs like this and they are so worth it! I grabbed a couple of girlfriends and their kids and we all went together when our girls were small. It was a great excuse to go have fun, open the conversation, and model for the girls how we can talk about this stuff.
Another great way to open the conversation with your child is to tell them some stories about you at this age/stage. Here are some opening lines you can use if you are a mom with a daughter:
As a mom, one of the things I did with my son when he was around 10, was read together in the evening the book What’s Happening to My Body – A Book for Boys. This book was fun and it gave us plenty of natural places for questions, stories and more conversation. The ages of 8 – 11 are usually ages when kids are still very open to lots of conversation and questions especially if you can appear curious, open, and excited for them to learn about all the wonderful changes that are going to soon be happening for them.
Ok – here are a few things about each age – Nine through Twelve:
Nine and Ten
Playground banter about sexual language increases exponentially among 9 to 10 year olds in large part because their minds are newly able to gasp the concepts of society in a much more complex way – its values, institutions, communities, the future. Because of this, they are able to take in the complexity of relationships more and are now absorbing sexual innuendos – in other words … less goes over their heads! This age also loves learning about fetal development. It is as if their awareness of their own gestating puberty awakens their curiosity about in utero development. I remember this clearly with my own kids. This was when we had the book with all the in utero LIFE magazine photos out. I loved telling stories about being pregnant with them, teaching about fetal development and they loved hearing about it! They are also increasingly curious about how bodies look without clothes on. My own daughter couldn’t get enough of the book “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie Harris just to see if her current state of development was represented. Kids are both excited and relieved to see the range of bodies and timing of development. This is especially important in a consumer culture like ours that is constantly telling people that their bodies are not ok – and kids are picking this up too!
Speaking about ways culture can function as an “educator” or communicator, I want to stop and talk for a minute about Porn – as a sex educator?? One of the other reasons it is so important you are talking to your kids about sexuality, in the context of real life, is so your child’s only “sex education” is not coming from American media and American pornography. The porn industry has had a powerful effect on how men and, by proxy women, have come to view “normal”. For example, because it is easier to see a close up camera shot of hairless genitals, actors in porn are hairless. Since this is the only consistent form of “sex education”, the vast majority of heterosexual men believe this is what a normal woman’s body is supposed to look and act like. Since the US provides no comprehensive sex education and most parents, churches and community groups, do not provide sex education – typical bodies and common sexual activity in the context of caring relationships is not shown or taught anywhere. Media becomes the only window into human sexual behavior and bodies. Since young people have nothing to compare it to, they assume porn and media’s depiction of sex is typical, common, normal, expected. With the influx of internet pornography in the 90’s we began a new widespread “sex educator”. Like Pavlov’s dog – a conditioned response was set in place to define as erotic or beautiful, hairless genitals, women who liked money shots, being demeaned, and a lack of sexual anticipation or sexual desire. This is also what was then communicated to heterosexual women through men’s responses to them, usually when they were teenagers, who now spend billions of dollars waxing and pretending, in order to look like and act like the women who men have been viewing while they masturbate. None of this however lends itself toward meaningful loving sexual engagement which looks, feels and deeply moves us heart, body, mind and soul … especially when this is a man or woman’s ONLY form of sex education. Now, I am not trying to make a judgment about pornography – that is for your family to decide via your values and views. I am however, wanting you to think about the understanding a child might grow to have about sex, sexuality, sexual expression, women and men, if pornography and media WERE THEIR ONLY OR PRIMARY form of information about sex and gender. The average child is now exposed to porn around age 9. Just as a child needs to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, cartoon and real, REAL TV and life, so they need to understand the difference between pornography and real relationships where people are sexual and accountable to the effects of their behavior on each other.
The fifth grader is fact and detail oriented. They want to know how everything works including their bodies. They can be giggly – but they’re uncomfortable feelings are transparent and easy to deal with. They are becoming more and more able to deal with abstract and complex ideas, controversies and moral dilemmas. It is a great time to cultivate strong clear values and critical thinking. Ask them lots of questions about what they think, and why they think what they think. They are at an age where they like to think this way and are still willing to share it with you. They are also usually fairly clear headed about risk taking and can tell you what is good or bad for you and why. Give them as many opportunities as possible to articulate their thoughts, opinions and values. This allows them to build a scaffolding they can begin to rely on later. At this age many have begun to notice body changes in themselves and each other. And are aware of boys and girls in new and different ways than just a year ago. One of the ways to help your child minimize their feelings of self-consciousness at this age is to talk briefly but often about body changes in order to normalize the process that is coming or happening. Having some familiarity with these conversations gives context to the child and goes a great distance in reducing the shock value.
At twelve information is penetrating their minds and bodies at such a rate, one sex educator said she thought sixth graders needed their own sexuality tutor! New questions emerge every hour. At this age nothing escapes them. They see this great big puzzle of life and they are desperately trying to get it right. They think about everything … and sexuality is no different. Their interests have now extended beyond reproductive facts and information on sexual behaviors, and now include a large variety of topics. My first career was as a junior high science teacher. I had the fantastic fortune of teaching sex education each spring. I kept an anonymous question box in my room and each Friday we would spend an hour pulling questions out of the box and answering them, or if I didn’t know the answer, we would find the answers together. I was so grateful I taught at a private college preparatory school which gave me the leeway to meet the student’s questions with respect, honesty and openness. This was an important part of our weekly curriculum.
Also at this age, modesty, feelings of privacy and feelings of self-consciousness are now being provoked especially for those who are early or late bloomers. They are aware of changing feelings and relationships with friends, family and same and other gender peers. Cliques, popularity and a need to fit in can begin to drive the social dynamic. Peer cruelty can be a means of social control and can be very powerful during these years. Social media has amplified the speed and impact of this, adding increasing concern about the impact on the self-esteem of many children. Conversations around these issues are essential especially for kids that are sensitive or who do not easily fit in. I remember reading the book Odd Girl Out with my daughter when she was this age. We both wanted to better understand how social media was amplifying the girl drama she was experiencing. While later they might want to keep to themselves, at this age they still often welcome a trusted parent or teacher to listen, affirm and guide. I let myself be the ‘fall-guy’ on many occasions. I would give my daughter or son permission to blame me when they did not want to go over to a friend’s house, or did not want to talk to or text a friend. By saying it was “their mean mom that would not let them do this or that …” they could save face until they were old enough to have their own voice and stand up for themselves. The ridicule and humiliation of adolescents can be vicious. Giving your kids a way-out can be very helpful.
The ‘M’ Word
The last topic worth covering in this age range is masturbation. Kids at this age and as they move further into adolescence will likely engage in self-pleasuring behavior. Research shows that as many as 75% and of boys and over 50% of girls under the age of 15 masturbate. Unlike the more comforting forms of touch I described in the younger years, as a child gets older and enters puberty, the touching becomes more purposeful, with the tween to teen seeking pleasure and eventually orgasmic release. Many parents and often kids are worried that they are masturbating too much. How much is too much? Here is the general rule. If masturbation is interfering with your child’s school, homework, family life, or friendships, then it is likely too often. Otherwise, it is very individual – from more than once a day to never. It is useful for your pre-teen to know that while many pre-teens, teens and adults masturbate, (both men and woman), many never do. If they are worried about this behavior, or lack of behavior, they can talk to you or to another safe adult. Some families oppose masturbation, some are fine with it, some are fine with masturbation in private but oppose pornography or certain types of pornography or imagery … Whatever your values, take the time to communicate them to your pre-teen and let them know how you came to those values and beliefs, what influenced you and why. It is also important to know that there is no research to show that forbidding masturbation will stop a young person from engaging in this behavior. It is only likely going to drive it underground, increase their sense of guilt and shame, and keep them from coming to you as a safe person to talk with. Remember, you want to remain a resource to your child. You can share your values, beliefs and hopes for your child and why. This will open the door for the child to hear your love and care for them while acknowledging that they will ultimately make some of these decisions whether they let you know it or not. Honoring that they are responsible for their decisions and consequences, allows you to stay safe and a resource to them. We all were born with a prefrontal lobe that is not fully developed until we are 25 – 28 years old. This means we are designed to learn from our experience … and our mistakes. My rule of thumb was … a mistake was not a mistake if you learned from it … it was a lesson. While all children will make some mistakes, accurate information and your love are the tools they need to make informed responsible decisions.
One more thought about masturbation for those of you who are ok being ok with it. Please encourage your boys to take their time and go slow. Let them know that if they end up being attracted to women, that women were created to have a much slower arousal cycle than a man. If they masturbate in such a way that they are always ejaculating fast, it will end up being something they worry about later when they are in a relationship. They can help themselves by trying to lengthen and slow the time before they ejaculate and learn to have some control. This will give them more confidence when they are older and in a loving relationship.
Here are some great books for this age:
What’s Happening to My Body – A Book for Boys
What’s Happening to My Body – A Book for Girls
What’s Happening to Me – A Guide to Puberty
Let’s Talk About Sex – A Guide for Kids 9 – 12
More Sex Ed Resources
So there you have it – 4 posts on Making Sex Ed Easy … at least, I hope, a little easier! 12 Guidelines for Sex Ed Communication, Sex Ed with Preschoolers, Sex Ed with 4 – 8 year old’s and this one. A special thanks to my amazing kids who allowed me to ‘learn on them’, use their adorable pictures and continue to allow me to share their stories all over my blog and in my teaching … and who grew up famously in-spite of having a crazy sex therapist for a mom! You guys are my heroes!
I hope this has been a helpful step by step guide through the Sex-Ed Conundrum. Please feel free to send me questions. I am always happy to help make this easier for you! xo
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