Body Talk: Dr. Cara Natterson on Puberty and Healthy CommunicationWell-Being
Women and girls can spend a lot of time thinking and talking about their bodies. Many of us are hyper-aware of how we look, feel, and think. Let’s put aside whether this is good or bad for a moment and, rather, ask why. Or more specifically, why is this a “girl” thing.
As a pediatrician, I work hard to teach kids about health, safety, and confidence. As a mom, I do the best I can to model taking care of myself and feeling good about the skin I’m in. But why do I direct my efforts more toward my 14-year-old daughter than my 12-year-old son? Why is this type of body talk largely considered a “girl” thing? Girls—especially tweens and teens—and their moms generally grow increasingly comfortable talking about puberty over time, which is wonderful. But boys and their parents—not so much. I, for one, am not having the same conversations with my son that I have with my daughter, and neither is my husband, despite the fact that my son’s body is morphing and his hormones are surging in many of the same ways that his sister’s are.
“ Puberty isn’t just a girl thing. So why do we leave our boys out of the conversation? ”
I write about puberty for a living. After med school, I practiced pediatric medicine and provided in-office care, but for the past decade I have been teaching and writing books on health and wellness. For the last five years, my work has focused specifically on what happens to the body and the brain throughout puberty. My work led to my involvement with American Girl’s The Care & Keeping Of™ series, which continue to be the best-selling puberty books in the country. For girls, that is.
This is not to say that giving girls information isn’t critical, because it absolutely is. My daughter is a classic beneficiary of the types of books I write. She and her friends are incredibly comfortable talking about their evolving physiques and moods, and they will have these conversations both among themselves and with their moms. Healthy communication like this empowers girls to talk about nutrition and exercise and to identify the connection between sleep and emotional well-being. The earlier we start conversations with our girls, the more girls learn about general health and safety. In short, puberty talk goes way beyond puberty.
But as boys experience their own physiological revolution, as my son saw just a couple of years ago when body odor made its debut and the errant pimple appeared here and there, they have no such support network. His friends certainly didn’t discuss it amongst themselves. And even when I (an “expert”) would broach the subject, my son would simply clam up.
Conventional wisdom (and everyone around me, including other doctors) said, “Let his dad have the conversations with him.” So I assigned the job to my husband. Frankly, it was an unfair request. While he was completely comfortable delivering a one-liner about why armpit scrubbing in the shower is important or the virtues of flossing, he’s a man who, like most of his generation, was raised to not talk about his body and to just deal with the changes as they come. It was difficult for him to have the same ongoing conversations I was having with my daughter about growing up, both physically and emotionally.
Boys need the same series of conversations we have with girls about their how their bodies will develop and how their minds will evolve. But unlike girls, they don’t have access to a zillion novels on the topic, or magazine articles, or online videos. They don’t have special classes teaching them empowerment or even basic healthy-living skills.
Puberty education is, in fact, the one corner where girls dominate—they have access to so much more information than their male counterparts. Let’s bring our boys into the conversation. We—and by “we,” I mean moms, dads, educators, and trusted adult role models—need to start talking to boys the same way we talk to girls—not just about hair and zits and voice changes, but also about mood swings and friend shifts and smart choices. Though male puberty isn’t quite as outwardly obvious at first, we cannot and should not ignore the transformation going on inside of our boys. By bringing boys into the conversation about how their bodies and minds change, and how to deal with those changes, we are raising a generation of girls and boys who will have the skills to live healthier lives.
Dr. Cara Natterson is a board-certified pediatrician and author of several books for parents on raising healthy children, including the newly released Guy Stuff: The Body Book for Boys from American Girl Publishing.