How should I talk to my kid about puberty?

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Rebecca sent us a couple questions about talking to her son about puberty: who should start the discussion? How far should it go?

Looking for skipping stones (young boy) Neither of my parents ever really talked about puberty with me, and now that my son is nine I’m wondering how, if, and when we should initiate the conversation. While it would be an easy out, I don’t want to push the talk off on my partner just because he’s the male in the equation.

We want our son to have a healthy attitude toward sex, his body, and all that this could entail in the coming years. We want him to feel like he can come to us with questions that might arise — whatever they might be about. Our son is a pretty shy kid, so we’re not exactly expecting him to be bold about cluing us in to what he might be wondering.

So tell me: should we be the ones to initiate the puberty talk? If so, how specific should we get? Should we also explain what happens to females during puberty, or do you think he’ll already be overwhelmed with information?

Comments on How should I talk to my kid about puberty?

  1. definitely initiate a puberty talk, my parents never spoke to me about puberty or the facts of life AT ALL
    My mum noticed my reading the Judy Blume book “are you there god, its me margaret” (which is about a girl getting her period) and briefly said, while badly cutting my bangs, if you want to talk about anything in there let me know…silence…end of conversation.

    so from science books and teen things, I learnt about periods, and boobs and pubic hair – but never realised that girls got armpit hair – until mine started growing!!!

    I know there are some great puberty books (just can’t think of any of the names at the moment)but read them with him rather than just throwing them at him to read by himself.

    I’m a school teacher and we have the kids have fun drawing on people shapes as to what happens in puberty – there are great comedy cocks and huge boob pictures but its a relaxed introduction to talking about what really happens

  2. There is a book that would be perfect for this situation. It’s called “hair in funny places” by Babette Cole. Read it through with him then give him some time to think up any questions that he may have.

  3. My mom would always do stuff like this by taking us on a car ride, with just you and her. She is a single mom with 5 kids, so it was one of the few times you could be alone with her. Then she would just tell us what she thought we needed to know. You could ask her anything you wanted whenever, and sometimes she would give you little bits of information that she forgot during the big talk whenever she remembered them. You and your partner could talk to him about it together, it may make him feel less embarrassed about it later if you let him know it’s a normal, everyday thing that happens to everybody. And if you use visual aids, take the kid out for ice cream, because those diagrams scarred the crap out of me. (Maybe because Jesus was on the page before the one that talked about the descending of the testes.)

  4. All I can offer is don’t make it a “talk”. I am an offbeat mama, but my daughter is only four so I haven’t had the puberty talk with her yet. But we have had many sex, where do babies come from, different body parts talks. And I am 19 so it wasn’t that long ago that I went through all of this. The biggest mistake me parents (my grandparents actually, they raised me) made was making a big deal out of it. No matter what there will be some level of embarrassment but if you make it a sit down together with that look of worry in your eyes moment, it will freak your kid out even more. Just make it normal conversation. The best thing is to use examples from tv and movies, or books and songs. Also, most parents make this mistake. Don’t say your child can come to you and then get upset when they ask you an off the wall question. If he does have a weird sex question or body question, no matter how crazy it is, treat it like he just asked you to pass the salt.

  5. My parents entire conversation with me about puberty, where babies come from, etc, was this:

    We were driving home from summer camp one year (I was 11), and a girl had gotten in trouble for flushing her pads at camp. I did not know what a pad was at this point. My mother turns to me in the car and says “You know, when you become a woman, you bleed…there. You put things in your underwear, that’s what she flushed.”

    It left a lot of holes to be filled in. I honestly thought she meant I would bleed from my butt, and I thought that’s where babies came from. Don’t be that parent. I would say that even if it embarrassed you and your kid, it’s still better than leaving them ashamed and scared of their own body.

    Books are good if he’s a shy kid, particularly if they go into detail and your talk doesn’t end up leaving room for so much detail.

    • My mother got me in the car at age 14 and the only piece of advice or information she gave was this gem:
      “if a boy ever tries to do something you don’t want him to do, stick your finger down your throat and puke on him.”
      Thank Goodness my bff’s mom was a nurse who had a very healthy and open communication with her daughter, who filled me in on everything. She is the only reason I didn’t think I was dying when my period started later that year.

      If you can’t have the conversations with your kids, then seriously consider who of your family/friends/educators/medical professionals can.

  6. My son’s only 1, but I’m a middle and high school teacher, so I have some perspective on “serious” discussions with adolescents, and I’ve learned that the less serious you can be about it, the better. Don’t make it a “talk,” just talk.

    Directness, candor, a sense of humor and an openness to answer any question frankly, without seeming startled or judgmental, is key. Beyond that, just give him the facts and then answer whatever questions he throws your way.

  7. I have a daughter, and she’s almost 2. She comes to the bathroom with me, and I describe to her everything that I’m doing. Every time I have my period, I explain in varying detail, depending on my mood how my tampons are used. She hands me maxi pads. It’s all very casual, and I’ve been doing it since she was 6 months old. She also sees me naked from time to time, and if she asks me I tell her what various body parts are. I’ll give her several “talks” when I think it’s nessecary, but for now, I just don’t want to get caught short. If she starts her period especially young, I’d hate for her to think she was bleeding to death, or that she had anything to be ashamed of.

    • Oh good! I’m glad I’m not the only one who does this! My daughter wont let me in the bathroom for a few seconds without crying her way in, so for the most party I just let her play in there while I do my business. I was uncertain the first time I had to use a tampon in front of her, but I figured if it’s something she’s used to, she won’t be freaked out about it

      For some reason my mom made tampons really scary! I didn’t use them until I was 20, and not until after I had started to have sex. I was more scared of tampons then sex, to be honest. Haha! I missed so many swimming parties due to being scared of tampons : (

    • My mom did that for me and I think it really normalized the whole thing. I have no recollection of an actual talk, although I do remember being fairly adamant that there were two things that would never happen to me: 1) I would never get my period and 2) I would never drink coffee. Ha! I love coffee. Anyways, her openness was really effective. When I was confused about the “pee hole” and the “baby hole”, she actually took me into the bathroom and showed me, and that was the end of that. She also got me a couple of books on puberty and checked in every once in a while as to what parts I had read and if I had any questions. I was still a little embarrassed about it all, but nothing was shocking or scary.

      I always thought I would approach it similarly if I had a daughter, but I have a 1 year old son, and find myself wondering if a similar approach is appropriate. At this point he comes into the bathroom with me and I talk about peeing and pooping so he gets the idea of what happens on the toilet, but I haven’t gotten my period yet so haven’t had to deal with it yet.

      To other mothers out there with sons and daughters: did you approach things differently with your son(s) versus your daughter(s)?

      • I would definitely support having the same openness with your son. Too many boys grow up grossed out by menstruation or mystified by the female body. My husband is a very intelligent man, but he asked me once how I can pee with a tampon in… he didn’t realize there were two holes! Save your son this future embarrassment and be as open with him as you were with your daughter. If you catch him young, it shouldn’t be a big deal.

        • My husband (he’s 24) was confused as to how tampons worked, he didn’t understand the applicator, so i just showed him…it seemed odd that something that is such a normal part of life for women remains such a mystery for men. i am all for the openness with your son! 🙂

    • My mom did this with me, too! It did lead to a couple of misunderstandings, though… like the time my mother told me that women use tampons when they’re not having babies, and I said, “Well, maybe [my aunt who had just had her fifth child] should try using a tampon!”

  8. My nieces call mommy’s period ‘privacy’. When asked ‘where’s mommy?’ If it’s that time of the monthyou may get the response ‘she is in the bathroom, cause she is on her privacy’ it was cut when they were 5, but now they’re 11!

  9. I ended up taking a class through (I think) my girl scout troupe in elementary school. It’s a lot less awkward when it’s a nurse talking to you about your boobs and genitalia than when it’s your parents. My parents THEN provided me with follow up books and, after I read them, asked me if I had any questions.

  10. When I was in 4th grade my mom took me to a class at the local hospital that taught girls about puberty (there was a boy class too). There were nurses doing to discussion and we were separated from our moms who were off having their own class. We all got a copy of ‘Our Bodies, Our Selves’ (which I hid for years, embarrassed my brother would see!). The discourse with the nurses and the parents getting a lesson themselves made it easier to discuss such a personal topic with a rather uptight mom who wouldn’t even let me say fart : P

  11. I read somewhere (here? maybe?) about a family who started giving their daughter “the talk” when she was six months old, and did it again every six months after that, until eventually both parents relaxed into it and figured out what to say, and until she knew everything without ever feeling like she had “learned” it. It was just something she knew about.

    For older kids, Dan Savage has a really great post of advice for young teenage boys, and a less great one for young teenage girls, about how to deal with the next few years. It’s listed as advice for fifteen-year-olds, but I gave it to my brother when he turned fourteen because we’re early bloomers. It’s more about planning and preparing for a healthy adult sex life than for dealing with puberty, but it’s still great information.

  12. My advice is to talk to your children about puberty earlier than you think you need to.
    Mum had taught me the basics but i was shocked and devastated when i got my first period 1 week after my 11th birthday. No one had told me you could get them that early, at school they taught us that 16 was the average age so i thought i was a freak.
    I was ashamed and embarassed about what was happening to me. Even if you give your child a book that explains everything if you know they aren’t comfortable talking to you about that stuff then at least they can get the info from there rather than relying on what they hear in the schoolyard!

  13. Having raised 3 sons, my approach was to let them know from the beginning they could ask me any question about anything and they would get an honest answer. When it was time to talk about puberty, nothing changed.
    When I asked their dad to “have the talk” to give them the male perspective, he said he wasn’t comfortable with that and actually said “can’t they learn it on the bus like everyone else”. – yes, they can, that’s the problem.
    Puberty is discussed in most school settings but the big point is that there is a great deal of misinformation out there and kids need to know the truth. Definitely keep it age appropriate and if you are really stressed by these topics find a friend or relative that you trust to talk to your kids. Don’t forget to tell your kids puberty happens to everyone and you went through it too. It’s just part of growing up.
    @ Rebecca – as your son is shy, why not start by sending him a note that says just what you feel: We want (you)to have a healthy attitude toward sex, (your) body, and all that this could entail in the coming years. We want (you)to feel like (you) can come to us with questions that might arise — whatever they might be about.
    maybe add, We’ll be here whenever you’re ready.
    this way, you introduce the topic without putting him on the spot.

    sorry for the long post, but this is a big topic!

  14. I think learning about the puberty experience of both boys and girls is a great idea! It doesn’t have to be super detailed information, but as one commenter said, so many men grow being mystified about the female body, which I think is a shame.

    I’d also like to add that while the age at which you’re considering the “puberty talk” might not be the appropriate age (perhaps when you’re having a more specifically sex oriented talk would be better), I think teaching kids, especially men, about consent and what it means and does not mean is HUGELY important. I work at a Women’s Center at a university, and there are so many heartbreaking stories that might have been different if the folks involved understood consent.

    Of course, you might be planning this already, and I certainly don’t regard all men as potential aggressors, but it’s much easier to make a mistake when you don’t have the information than when you do. Just my .02.

  15. I would initiate “the talk” and do it right away. I remember a couple of years ago when I found out some of my students (10-11 years old)had been watching porn of one of their houses. The thing was that they were good kids! I would have never expect it that young. However, that was my own bias coming into it, and now I encourage parents to start early and make it a “normal” thing to talk about (not normal like pass the peas hows your penis, but normal like not awkward) so that kids will learn it from a source that has accurate information, rather than their buddies.

    • Watching porn early doesn’t make you a bad kid, it just makes you curious and pretty normal. 11 is when I started, and same for a lot of the people I’ve talked to as well.

      My mom gave me a good education about what was happening to my body and a couple of books, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to know what all the fuss was about.

      • Sorry to make it sound like I thought kids watching porn made them “bad”. What I was more getting at is that parents often assuming that only the “bad” kids are doing that, and it certainly isn’t their kid! Then they make the mistake of waiting on the talk, and by then the children learn a lot of wrong information from their peers.

  16. My 9 year old daughter has owned and had easy access to the books “Where Did I Come From” and “What’s Happening to Me” since she was born. She has gone through a few phases of reading them and bringing them out for discussion. (Not being shy, she particularly likes bringing them out at parties, to get a nice broad array of responses. :)) What’s Happening to Me is the puberty book, and it covers boys and girls. It’s dated, but pretty good. She’s a big reader, so providing access to the book has worked well – she found it and is happy to come to me with questions. I let her direct the conversation.

    I just remembered that she also has a book called “It’s Perfectly Normal,” which she has referred to less frequently – as I recall it is both less dated and more detailed, which probably means it will be more appropriate for her as she gets a little older.

  17. My mother never had this talk with me and what sucked is I had a MAJOR complication and had to have surgery to start my mentrual cycle when I was 12.

    Then, about a year later, in a K-mart parking lot she decided to have “the talk” with me. Which only consisted of her telling me, “Mija, don’t ever have anal sex”. She then preceeded to tell me about a cousin she had hooked up to a machine because her insides were falling out of her butt from all the anal sex she had.

    My mother was very uncomfortable with sex (surprising since she had 6 kids!)I was bright enough to figure out what was BS and what was fact, but it would’ve been nice to have some guidance.

  18. Excellent source for tweens, teens & their parents: They call it sex ed for the real world, and if I’d known about that site when I was teaching, I would’ve made sure all the health teachers & councilors knew about it, too.

    I can’t believe how much misinformation kids pick up from friends, TV and other bad sources.

  19. This may seem weird to some, but I really don’t think there will be a “time” for me to talk to our boys. My oldest is 4 & we still cobathe at times, he sees me naked nearly daily & he is aware that I have a cycle & (in his words) “a vagina is basically a baby-hole”. I don’t aim to tell him things, but I live openly around him & as I do, things come up, questions get asked (and answered) and we move on. One day he was crying that he wanted his penis to look like daddy’s. I mistakenly thought he meant circumcised so I was explaining circumcision when he stopped me to say “NO – big & hairy!!!” Well easy enough to explain, I told him it would look like daddy’s later, when he was more daddy’s size, but that his body had a lot of growing yet to do. His hands & feet are much smaller than daddy’s, his legs much shorter, etc.

    I think the best policy for ensuring our children are comfortable in their own skin & have a real understanding of others is just to be as open as we can from day one. I tell him tidbits about things all the time that I know he isn’t likely to absorb or understand yet, but he will some day & if I have been talking to him all along about it, it will sink in. They are small things like respect your body & respect other people’s bodies. This means not touching others in any way without permission & telling others when you feel like your space is being intruded on. This seems maybe premature, but I have an avid hugger who would like to inflict a hug on many people who do not want to be hugged for the duration he sees fit. I tell him hugs are great things when we have permission to be in someone’s space that way, but that EVERYONE has a right to define their own boundaries – him included.

    So far he seems to have no personal boundaries, but I hope some day he does & I hope talking about it helps them to develop in a way that is healthy.

    The only advice I could give if you have not even started the basic talk about life & bodies & growth is to talk while being active. Boys listen better & ask more honest questions when the “focus” is on something else (like an activity) instead of setting down, being too serious & requiring too much eye contact.

  20. I remember literally stuffing my fingers in my ears and humming while my Mom initiated a bed time conversation during middle school beginning, “we are all sexual beings”. Yikes! My parents were very forward with discussing puberty, sexuality, health and all things bodies. We used proper terms for genitalia, I always knew where babies came from, and I had to duck and cover when it came to discussing sex.
    All of those dreaded talks led to…me as an adult, being so appreciative. I majored in Women’s Studies, interned at Our Bodies, Ourselves during college and later went into Women’s Health nursing, with a career I love in Gynecologic Oncology. I will become a Mom who talks frankly about sex, sexuality, and who will totally understand when my kids are uncomfortable.

  21. My mum never really talked to me about puberty. We had the whole talk about it in school so she probably thought: ” oh she’s having the talk at school , I won’t bother talking to her about it .” eventually I got so upset that she didn’t talk to me about puberty I had daily crying periods. Once , when I was 10 she was getting some tampons at the supermarket and she told me she was getting some toothpaste?! So a message to all moms- please talk to your daughter about puberty when they are at least eightish. Just simply ask her: honey I was just wondering if you have hit puberty. Be super kind to her during that time and try to understand her feelings.

  22. I was such a shy child it took me a couple of years of needing to wear a bra until I got up the courage to ask my mom if she would buy one for me.

    My dad left out a ton of Judy Blume books for me to read, and general teenage “My body is changing!” books, and that covered lots of things! It also meant I didn’t ever have to discuss my body with him, which was a relief.

  23. My mom just randomly mentioned stuff to me as I started getting older. It was always really casual, like while we were making dinner. It got to the point that I was actually pretty excited to get my period (that went away real fast after the first period). She also bought me a book. I have no idea what it was called or if it’s made anymore and I’m sure there are just as good ones out there. I liked having the book because I could refer to it whenever I wanted. I remember reading the parts about STD’s and gossip over and over again. I eventually passed it on to my friend who’s parents completely avoided telling her anything about her body or sex.

    I will say, despite how open my mom always was about bodies and sexuality, she did still manager to embarrass me into silence occasionally. Once I told her about some boys at school joking about masturbation (age 12, I think) and she laughed and as she walked away she turned and said “You know girls can do that to, right?” I was so horrified I just said yes to get her to stop. I honestly had no clue though.

    Making it into no big deal is a good thing, I think. My mom jokes that her proudest achievement was getting my sister and I out of high school without getting STD’s or pregnant. I think it was entirely because we felt ok talking to her about it. I told my mom everything so she helped me understand what was going on with my body and how to deal with it.

    Start talking early! You never know when puberty will start so you don’t want to miss something and have your child feeling awkward. I started getting boobs and leg hair when I was 10 and had my period just after my 12th bday. That was 6 years earlier than my best friend.

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