By Hilary Levey Friedman
Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff’s The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls
Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley’s It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health
Joyce T. McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women
Jonathan Zimmerman’s Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education
Few things in life fill people—adults and children alike—with as much trepidation as puberty. And while the contours of puberty are unchanged, the age at which it occurs and the implications of that have in fact shifted. So how can we prepare our children, and ourselves, to handle these bodily and life changes with grace?
Four books help show us the way, all with a different focus but in the service of helping adolescents develop a healthy relationship with their own bodies and with others. Jonathan Zimmerman’s academic study of the history of sex education gives us a sweeping big picture view of how we got here, Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff’s The New Puberty not only breaks down what happens biologically but what may or may not have influenced young girls’ biology in more recent times, Joyce McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom describes the potential long-term implications of not properly addressing puberty with your daughter, and Robie Harris and Michael Emberly’s It’s Perfectly Normal provide a guide you can have your children read so you can have an open discussion together.
It’s Perfectly Normal first appeared in 1994. Since then it has appeared in 35 different languages and in 2014 its 20th anniversary edition appeared with updates on gender identity, sexting, and social media use. Both Your Daughter’s Bedroom and The New Puberty identify It’s Perfectly Normal as one of the best books to use when teaching your children about puberty (boys and girls alike). When you look at the 100-page book it is easy to see why; it tackles sometimes uncomfortable topics with directness and humor thanks to the beautiful watercolor illustrations, especially the Bird and the Bee who appear on every page. While the authors say the book is appropriate for ages 10 and up, it could also be used for children as young as 8, especially because the best time to talk about changes is before they start occurring.
According to Greenspan and Deardorff, pubertal changes are in fact happening earlier than ever before. But not across the board—and it is one of the major strengths of this book that the authors give lots of detail and measured caveats without resorting to attention-grabbing headlines. The New Puberty explains that puberty is a process much more like a long hallway than a single doorway. What hasn’t changed is that puberty in girls typically starts with breast development, then armpit and pubic hair, often acne, followed by a growth spurt, and at last menstruation. The authors explain that, “Girls today tend to experience breast budding at a much earlier age than girls in the 1970s, but they don’t necessarily get their first period that much sooner than their 1970 counterparts.”
Why does this matter? Greenspan and Deardorff explain, “For girls, puberty is unique. It not only foments a complex array of emotional issues but also heralds the development of visual cues of sexuality (e.g. breasts, wider hips) to a degree that boys just don’t experience.” For these reasons the book focuses on females, though advice offered in The New Puberty about how to build emotional closeness and develop healthy habits can be applied equally as well to boys.
Because of changes in the timing of puberty—to which Greenspan and Deardorff carefully show cannot be attributed to any one change but rather a combination of hormone mimickers in the environment, stress, fat, race and ethnicity, and still other factors (one of the best chapters in the book is Chapter 3, “Nature versus Nurture: An In-Depth Look at Puberty Prompters”)—they argue sex education should start earlier than ever. They offer reassurance in The New Puberty that, “Although you may feel like it’s all happening too fast, maturation is actually a slow process, so there’s time to develop this conversation in a way that feels natural to both of you.” But when breast buds begin developing at age 8 for many girls today, should sex ed really wait until middle or even high school?
Jonathan Zimmerman in his new book, Too Hot to Handle, shows how sex ed has been handled differently across the world and in different time periods. When sex education began the United States was one of the leaders, mainly because of its early investment in public education and secondary schools. Though today it lags behind many countries, especially ones like Sweden, which became the first nation in the world to make sex education required in all public schools in 1956.
Venereal disease has been a driving force behind increased sex ed (note it often goes by different names to make it more palatable, such as population education, social hygiene, human relations, or marriage and family education), like during World War II in the 1940s and in the 1990s following the HIV epidemic. But what has always stifled good sexual education remains true across borders and time: parental resistance, religious objections, and poor teacher preparation. Four topics in particular are seen as taboo: abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and masturbation.
Masturbation is one of the more surprising focuses of Joyce McFadden’s Your Daughter’s Bedroom. McFadden, a psychoanalyst, decided to conduct an online survey in 2005 called the Women’s Realities Study. One of the most interesting results of that survey is that the topics women most want to talk about, but don’t always, include masturbation, menstruation, and women’s relationships with their mothers. In fact, McFadden argues, the beginning of menstruation is often the start of distance between mothers and daughters. She wants to enable mothers to feel more comfortable with their own sexuality so that they can pass on that confidence to their daughters. In her own words, “Your Daughter’s Bedroom, is the first book to address the psychological and emotional elements of the sexuality of both mothers and daughters. It offers mothers outward and inward prescriptions for change, because it’s intended to encourage mothers to be introspective and reflect on our own sexuality while learning how to give our daughters the ability to live more comfortably with theirs.”
In talking about It’s Perfectly Normal, McFadden points out that lots of mother’s today give their daughters books about menstruation. However, they just give the books and don’t often have conversations about the contents and answer questions that inevitably arise. So not only does sexual education need to improve in schools, so too does it at home. In order to raise girls, and boys, who are comfortable with their bodies they must receive proper education, support, and guidance from all of the adults in their lives. By being open, honest, and loving about puberty we can raise children who know more about themselves and how to be healthy as they grow and develop over the life course, influencing future generations along the way.
Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.