Meg Meeker, M.D.
A new study looking at more than 4,000 boys around the country confirms what pediatricians like me have been noticing for the past decade. Boys are going through puberty at earlier ages than they used to.
The study is featured in the latest issue of Pediatrics and reports that the earliest age at which boys begin puberty differs according to their ethnic background. African American boys can start puberty as early as 9.14 years of age and non-Hispanic Caucasian boys can start at 10.14 years old. For Hispanic boys, the earliest age they begin is 10.4 years old.
Think about this for a moment. Nine- and ten-year-old boys are in the fourth and fifth grades. If life weren’t tough enough, now many of our boys must contend with hormonal and physical changes with which they may not be mentally or emotionally prepared to deal. So what’s a parent to do? I’ve got some ideas.
The sexual development of boys is a beautiful and complex process and must be respected. We need to cherish our boys’ sexuality and teach them to do the same—especially when it begins as early as the fourth grade.
1. We need to teach our sons that their bodies are beautiful and private. Each boy must know that what is happening to his body is his business and no one else’s. Remember, boys become curious about their budding sexuality in middle school and many touch and fondle one another to experiment with physical sensations. While we need to tell them to keep their bodies private, we need to be sure not to make them feel ashamed.
2. We must work hard to help them preserve their own modesty because it is a great protective mechanism. Those who cherish their bodies cover them to keep them secure and private. Flaunting oneself is a sign of disrespect, not the opposite. The best way to help a son stay modest is to tell him that because his body is so special, he must take good care of it. The other way we preserve their modesty is by giving them sex education in a healthy progressive fashion. Something like this:
In kindergarten—tell him why he wears a bathing suit to the beach. Make him close the door when using the bathroom. This is the way to begin teaching him “body boundaries.”
In second grade—if he asks (or hears about sex at school), have the talk with him. Tell him about intercourse in a gentle and positive way. He will howl and run out of the room, but this is normal. If he doesn’t ask by third grade, you initiate the talk.
In middle school—keep conversations going. Tell him that he will hear about sex and may see friends doing things. When he does, let him know that he can come to you to have his questions answered. Establish yourself as the “go-to” person when it comes to understanding sexual things.
In high school—ask what his friends are doing. Are they dating? Having sex? What does he think about that? Should he be sexually active? Why or why not? When he answers, really listen. Then tell him why he must put the brakes on and wait for sex. The dangers of intercourse (with or without a condom) are too great for teens. I know this is tough news, but it’s the medical truth.
I fear that with this news of boys going through puberty earlier, teachers and others may advocate for telling our sons about sexual activity too soon or too bluntly and thereby breakdown their modesty. We must realize that just because their bodies are growing pubic hair, their minds are still very young. In order to raise healthy, strong boys, we must parent to their hearts and minds, not to their bodily changes. The best way to do this is to amp up protecting their modesty and have healthy, positive and age appropriate conversations at home. Because that’s where they really listen.