I remember my school’s puberty talk like it was just yesterday. The teachers separated us by sex, the girls in one room, the boys in another. We learned to label our body parts according to reproductive function. (No mention of the clitoris, of course.) We were given a very mechanical description of sex. And then there was a brief discussion of all the changes that would soon befall us: The boys would get squeaky and then deeper voices; we girls would grow breasts and get our periods; and we’d all sprout hair in places we’d never had hair before.
Our teachers told us that all of this was normal. They told us not to feel ashamed. But they didn't tell us much about how to treat one another.
Though puberty certainly is normal, it rarely feels normal to any kid who’s experiencing it. It often inspires a lot of fear and shame.
And it can lead kids to be truly awful to one another.
Blood stains on my jeans and pencils popping open the back of my bra: These were some of my biggest fears when I was in the fifth grade. Now, I have a fifth grader—a son. We’ve had plenty of talks at home about sex and puberty. He also knows that a school puberty talk is the horizon for him. While I can relate to him about the general anxiety and biology of puberty, I can’t relate to him on a more specific level: I went through puberty as a cisgender girl, and he will go through it as a (presumably) cisgender boy.
'It would have been nice to know that there were sensitive boys in my class who would have been kind to me if I had been in an embarrassing situation.'
But this biological divide doesn’t mean that I, as his mother, have nothing valuable to share with him about my experiences. In fact, I’ve decided that I have something exceedingly valuable to share with him and, some day, his younger brothers.
I can try to instill a little sensitivity in them.
And so recently, I sat him down for “The Talk.” In fact, it was probably “The Talk: Take 23” in our house.
“Girls in your class are going to start getting their periods soon,” I began.
He squirmed a bit and rolled his eyes. He knows what a period is. He knows that I get them. He knows that girls—some general, amorphous conception of “girls”—get them. And he knows that periods are not scary in and of themselves. But did he know that they could be scary to a girl who first experiences them? I wasn’t so sure.
“Look,” I told him, “when girls first get their periods, it can be kind of scary and embarrassing. And if a girl in your class gets her period, and you can see a little blood, don’t make fun of her. If you see some kids making fun of her, tell them to stop. Don’t laugh. Don’t act grossed out. Because—and I know you don’t want to hear this—I got my first period when I was in middle school. And I was so scared and nervous about it. It would have been nice to know that there were sensitive boys in my class who would have been kind to me if I had been in an embarrassing situation.”
He nodded his head before trying to bolt from the conversation.
“Nope, we’re not done yet,” I said.
“Mom!” he groaned.
“Just one more thing," I promised. "Because there’s something else that girls often get made fun of for in middle school: Breasts. And bras. Girls in your class are probably already wearing bras, and some of them might be nervous about that, too.”
Now he really looked like he wanted to run away.
But at least his ears didn’t melt off his head when I talked about periods and breasts and bras.
“Some kids make fun of girls when their breasts get bigger and they start wearing bras. And it can be really mortifying if you’re the girl who gets made fun of," I said.
I told him to think about this: I had to go shopping for my first bra with my grandmother. "With Grandma! I was so embarrassed, even though it was completely normal, even though periods and breasts don’t embarrass me one bit now. So … so just be kind to the girls in your class, alright? And be kind to the boys, too. Don't make fun of anyone. Just...just be kind.”
“Okay, Mom,” he said. And then he groaned some more and walked away.
This was not a comfortable conversation for him. No version of “the talk” is, I suppose.
But at least his ears didn’t melt off his head when I talked about periods and breasts and bras. And bra-shopping with his grandmother.
Beneath his eye-rolls, I could swear that I saw something like a glimmer of understanding: a realization that the best way to get through this whole embarrassing-yet-completely-normal puberty thing is simply to be kind to one another.