Dads often fret when their daughters reach puberty especially if it happens at a young age (I know I did). They worry about the implications of their little girl developing into a young woman. But the reaction doesn’t seem to be as strong when boys reach the same milestone.
Obviously, puberty is different for boys and girls and I think it’s those obvious changes in their daughters that accounts for the differences in parental reactions. Fathers can easily tell when their daughters are going through puberty because of developing breasts and menstruation. For boys, the changes are more subtle – hair growth, voice changes, testicles dropping, etc. But the bottom line is the same – our little babies are turning into adults right before our eyes. And it is a bit disturbing when it starts happening to children who are only 9 or 10.
The trend toward earlier onset of puberty in girls is now generally accepted and supported by extensive research. Until recently, little research was available on the age of onset of puberty in boys. A 2012 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed that boys are entering puberty six months to two years earlier than they did in past studies. Overall, African-American boys were more likely to start puberty earlier than white or Hispanic boys. Although we may not like this trend, we cannot ignore it. Our sons need our support during this critical phase of their lives.
I first got an inkling that my son might be entering puberty zone after he was playing outside one day. He ran past me and his body odor nearly knocked me off my feet. I immediately sent him to the showers and started lamenting the beginning of the end of innocence.
Since that fateful day, I’ve had specific and detailed discussions with my son about how his body will change over the next few years. I shared stories of how I coped with puberty when I was a boy. For me, it was a bit more difficult because I was raised by a single mother, and she wasn’t really comfortable talking about these things. I had to rely on books and my fifth grade Sex Education class. I let my son know that there is nothing to be embarrassed about and that he can come to me with questions and concerns. My son, who is very inquisitive, had many questions and still does. I patiently answer them because I know he needs my guidance now more than ever.
Although the changes are mostly physical, there is a huge emotional component, too. I can still remember the turmoil I experienced while trying to cope with bodily changes, homework, siblings, parents, bullies, and what cereal to have for breakfast. When we’re talking to our sons about puberty it is important to listen for feelings as well as facts.
We may not be able to control when our children hit this developmental milestone, but we can control how well we equip them to deal with it.
(For more on this topic of early puberty in boys, see my interview on NPR, “Like Girls, Boys Are Entering Puberty Earlier“)