The Birds & the Bees, (fig) leaves on the trees

Heart to Heart: The Puberty Talk

Fish gotta swim, and birds gotta fly…hormones will rage, the unprepared will cry… at least, that is what my daughter’s pediatrician told me while recommending a parent/ child seminar for my daughter and I to attend called Heart to Heart: A Seminar on Growing Up for Parents and Kids. Co-developed by Seattle-based medical team Julie Metzger, RN and Dr. Rob Lehman, MD, Heart to Heart is an informative, funny, and positive discussion of puberty, the opposite sex and growing up. I know what you are thinking; what can they possibly say to make puberty sound appealing to the 10-12 year old attendees and their parents. If you are like me, memories of puberty don’t rank high on the scale of awesome life experiences. In my view, during the pubescent years we collectively sink into one of the deepest pits of hell and somehow come out the other side having survived– barely, and in the process have cultivated enough embarrassing experiences to guarantee a therapist’s revenue stream for years to come. So when my daughter’s pediatrician mentioned this seminar to me, my interest was piqued. I had to admit that I didn’t exactly have a plan when it came to how I was going to broach the topic of puberty with my kiddo. I was hoping to just “duck and cover” but the pediatrician seemed to think that was a bad strategy…

I must admit, when the pediatrician asked me whether I had talked to my kiddo about puberty I balked at the question. It seemed a little early to talk to her about it, she was 9 years old at the time, and if I’m being perfectly honest, my daughter definitely runs on the less mature side of the bell curve for her age group. I wondered how she would even process the information. Would she understand it? Would it freak her out? Would she become “that kid” that starts listing off puberty fun facts, much to the chagrin of her classmates and their parents? It was a potential minefield. But, what tipped me over the edge in favor of attending the seminar were the echoes of the pediatrician saying, “It’s better she know now, than after puberty kicks in.” That bit of wisdom, plus imagining the alternative of explaining puberty to my daughter without going to the class…

With this in mind, I signed us up, and its a good thing, because I had to schedule our class about 6 months ahead of time. Yes, that class is popular!

Six months came and went and it was finally time to attend our first of two two-hour sessions (spaced one week apart). Since we are a mother/ daughter team, we attended the session “For Girls” and found ourselves in a small lecture hall full of moms and daughters, looking slightly awkward, quietly sitting and waiting for the session to begin. Upon arrival we were given a free book, “Will Puberty Last My Whole Life?” (Julie Metzger, RN, MN, & Robert Lehman, MD) and a small piece of paper and pencil to jot down anonymous questions that would be answered aloud for the last 20 minutes of the session. The woman leading the session began with a game that covered the 6 major changes girls go through during puberty. The lecturer discussed each change with the zeal of a cheerleader trying to make the squad. I had never seen anyone be so ridiculously enthusiastic about growing up, but her energy was infectious and soon the formerly nervous and trepid group of 50 girls and their moms were openly participating, calling out answers, laughing, and having an all around good time together. My daughter was no exception. She thought the whole thing was hilarious. She was giggling away as the lecturer guided the class through discussions about pimples, breasts, hair, growth spurts, periods, tampons, and mood swings. The lecturer stuck sanitary pads on her shirt, threw tampons out into the audience like confetti, and told funny anecdotes about growing up to which everyone could relate. As far as the information dispensed on that first session and how it was presented, that lecturer stuck the landing. A perfect “10.” The lecture was interactive, informative, and didn’t get bogged down bythe level of medical detail that would cause the attendees’ eyes to glaze over. Slam dunk. We went home happy and undaunted by the information given.

Fast forward one week. My daughter and I were back in the lecture for part two of the puberty seminar. The room was full of tween chatter until the lecturer started the session. This week would cover emotions, boys, and sex. The room got very quiet. The lecturer led the mom and daughter pairs through some situational role playing, where, for example, the daughters were supposed to make the case of having just shaved their heads when they knew the annual family portrait would be taken the next day. These first few simulations were on the silly and light-hearted side, emphasizing the significance of parent/ child communication and the importance of family as the primary resource for emotional support. The last one was a toughie for my daughter. We had to pretend that it was her birthday and she was planning her party. One friend who had been a best friend for many years wasn’t being so kind to her any more and my daughter didn’t want her to come to the party but also didn’t want to hurt her friend’s feelings or deal with the fallout of that decision. My daughter looked at me and started to act the part of a confused kid who had to make a tough decision. As she was telling me the imagined situation, I could see real tears welling up in my daughter’s eyes. Next thing I knew she was inconsolably crying in the lecture hall. I looked around for tissues, all I had was that stupid little piece of paper on which to write anonymous puberty questions. Argh! After a while, my daughter calmed down, having somewhat successfully used her little piece of question paper to blow her very snotty nose, and pulled it together.

It was a strong and sudden example of how real all of this is for these kids. Not all of them are as sensitive as mine, but it was a stark reminder that these heightened emotions will be the cause of some poignant, seminal moments in their development, both good and bad.

With half of the class time spent on discussing emotions (with some of us talking our kids off the ledge), the rest of the class was reserved for talking about the opposite sex. Not surprisingly, this was met with a lot of groans. One girl even asked, “Why do we have to spend so much time talking about boys, I just want to hear more about the amazing breasts?” Duly noted. Here, the tweens were pretty trepid again when it came to asking questions. Many of the questions came in the form of, “I heard that when a boy’s, you know, uh- thingy…” It got to the point where the lecturer stopped and said, “Ok, here, in the class, we are going to use the medical words in our questions. So let’s just get this over with. Repeat after me: PENIS! PENIS! PENIS!” After we all yelled “penis” a bunch of times in a row, the collective guard was down and questions could resume.

The girls had a tremendous amount of questions, some silly, some serious. All the questions that were asked aloud or written down on our now infamous little pieces of paper were answered thoroughly excepting only one subject matter – questions about “intercourse” per se were not covered in any amount of detail in this class. So if you are looking to get off the hook explaining that to your child, you need to find a different class! I actually found the lecturer, though not shy herself, appear to dance around a lot of the more detailed aspects of some questions the girls asked. Some parents were perhaps relieved by that, preferring to have either their school’s sex-ed class cover the material or have they themselves explain intercourse to their child. In my view, I would have preferred a larger discussion of intercourse, since the lecturer is already discussing so many related topics including reproduction. My daughter’s reaction to the second session was a lot more mixed. I think it was a bit confusing to her, and she left slightly perplexed about how she felt. It was a lot for her to process. Objectively speaking, it is a big topic with a lot of information to parse through.

These classes serve as a way in to a conversation that is not easy nor comfortable to initiate. Heart to Heart does that work for you. If you have a program like Heart to Heart in your area (check in with your local hospital’s community outreach or lecture series), I’d highly recommend it. It is an easier and less awkward way into your first conversation with your child regarding puberty. How your subsequent conversations go, that is up to you. Just keep the lines of communication open.

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  1. says: Anjani

    Loved your writing Anouck. You describe it exactly as I remember it from two-three years ago. I think the intercourse part of it that is not covered in the heart to heart is now part of the middle school sex ed curriculum.

  2. says: Anouck Iyer

    I am very curious about what will be covered in the 5th grade sex ed curriculum. I guess we will find out soon enough.

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