On a cloudy, gray afternoon, a group of 23 fifth-grade girls
gather in a pale green room at the Robert Crown Center in Hinsdale,
clutching remotes. They are clearly shaking. Knowing this, Phyllis
Gorman, a 17-year teaching veteran of the program, warms up the
crowd by making a statement and then waiting for them to plug in
"'I am old enough to have started going through puberty.' Press
'1' for yes or '2' for no."
Soon the large screen in the front of the room lights up with a
bar graph. More than half of the girls don't think they are old
With that, Gorman launches into her program, gently and often
humorously explaining the mysterious reproductive system.
"Sometimes kids are more comfortable with a stranger. It's a
safe place here. You don't know the person giving you the
information, so it's easier to ask any questions you want," says
Kathleen Burke, chief operating officer at Robert Crown Center.
Students leave with a booklet to review with their parents,
allowing parents to fill in their values and family beliefs.
Gorman briefly touches on the various body systems before
getting to the reproductive system, "the only system that isn't
working when you're born."
She compares the pituitary gland to an alarm clock, explaining
that everyone's clock goes off at a different time to get ready for
puberty. When she briefly touches on boys' time frame, she puts it
in terms of car driving: It takes the boys a little longer to start
their engines, but they both arrive at the same place.
Her matter-of-fact attitude and humor-"take a couple of deep
breaths here, girls"-relax the class, who halfway through, start
She explains menstruation using a life-size cross section model
and also incorporates practical information, such as how to use a
sanitary pad and discussing what they could do if they get their
periods in school.
By the time she reaches hair growth, acne and the need to shower
more frequently, the girls are clearly more comfortable.
When she warns them about changing emotions and surging
hormones, the girls giggle.
Maybe your mother subtly left a pamphlet by your bed. Or your
dad awkwardly coughed through an explanation of hormones. The
information seemed too horrifying and embarrassing to ever discuss
with your, ugh, parents.
As much as we like to think that we are far more enlightened and
progressive today, the reality is that it's still uncomfortable to
talk to your kids about puberty and body changes, much less
Children today are exposed to more graphic sexual images and
innuendos at a much younger age, making it more important than ever
that they learn the facts correctly. Research overwhelming shows
that, despite their vehement eye-rolling, kids want and need that
information to come from their parents.
But what is the best way to broach the topic?
We went to the experts at Robert Crown Center in Hinsdale to
find out. They have been teaching puberty and reproductive
education to students throughout eight counties in the Chicago area
for more than 50 years.
They've heard it all.
Kathleen Burke, chief executive officer of Robert Crown Center,
says there is no one ideal age to start talking; it varies from
child to child, even neighborhood to neighborhood.
"Ideally, parents should be having an ongoing conversation with
their kids and getting comfortable using the correct anatomical
names while their children are still infants," she says. "This
makes those words less taboo."
While some girls reach puberty as early as 8 and some boys at 9,
it's generally a good idea to teach kids by age 11 what changes are
going to occur in their bodies.
The Robert Crown puberty programs-"Linda" (for girls) and
"Michael" (for boys)-typically are presented to fifth-graders.
"Life Begins" teaches reproduction by focusing on science and
biology, and usually occurs around sixth grade. Some schools and
parents also opt for a more comprehensive program in eighth grade
dealing with decision-making and more serious sexual realities.
The center recently rolled out a series of free online video
vignettes (robertcrown.org), giving parents specific scenarios to
use in order to start a sensitive conversation. Shot locally and
using Chicago-area actors, the videos demonstrate suggestions of
what to say and how to say it, as well as giving some humorous
advice on what NOT to say.
Rather than bracing yourself for The Big Talk or holding up one
of those awkward picture books of pollinating flowers subtly
followed by two people lying in bed under the covers, look for
teachable moments throughout childhood, the center recommends.
"It doesn't have to start in a big dramatic way," says Andy
Wentling, manager of curriculum and instruction at Robert Crown.
"Look for opportunities. During a football game on TV, if you see a
deodorant commercial, that's a teachable moment about body odor and
how hormones are changing."
After you've started the conversation, keep it going when the
opportunity arises. Follow up with any provocative situations in TV
shows, movies or songs, and ask questions about their friends'
behaviors. These talks don't have to have a formal, face-to-face
structure. It's often easier to share when you're doing another
activity, such as driving, walking the dog, shopping or raking
Sarah Hoban of Barrington found it easier to have the
conversation once she knew her daughter was going to be presented
with the information at school. "I wouldn't have thought school
would be a good setting, but it really provided a nice framework
and gave me something to start with."
It's OK to be embarrassed and to acknowledge that it's an
awkward topic. Admitting that you feel uncomfortable can even
lighten the tension.
Give kids the information in a straightforward manner with
correct terminology. Use a matter-of-fact tone and just convey the
facts that they need, a little bit at a time. Separate the puberty
talk from the sex talk.
"Sometimes parents start rambling," says Wentling. "It's very
natural. But kids need a little time to process information."
For Beth Thomas of Downers Grove, that meant reminding her
sixth-grade daughter about what she learned a year earlier before
she delved into the talk about how babies are made.
"I told her a little about what happens with boys and then after
her field trip, we talked more and I was able to prompt her with
And this, Wentling agrees, is an excellent strategy. If they
come to you with questions, answer them and follow up with more
questions, "Why do you want to know?" or "What have you heard?"
This will help give you an idea of what your child knows, or thinks
Don't worry if you don't have all the answer or your child comes
to you with a complex moral question. It's OK to tell them that
you'll find out more and report back.
It's also helpful to clear up misconceptions that arise. After
hearing the reproduction talk, Thomas' daughter later heard girls
talking at the lunch table about ways to not get pregnant. When her
mother asked her what she learned from that discussion, they were
able to sort out the truth from the rumors.
Wentling reminds parents that just because kids are asking, it
doesn't mean they're doing anything.
Kids today are exposed to terms from French kissing to oral sex
and often just don't know what something means. Likewise, don't
assume that by answering the question, they're going to engage in
the activity. This is the perfect opportunity to insert your
family's moral values.
Once you're comfortable and the original uneasiness has
subsided, continue to spend time talking about the emotional
implications of a sexual relationship, as well as the
responsibilities and consequences of sex.
"Recognize that the challenging part is just starting the
conversation," says Burke. "There are points in life as they
develop when you want them to be able to come to you."
By starting gradually and touching base frequently, most parents
find that while they may not ever be entirely comfortable talking
about the topic, they can at least speak clearly and
Laura Amann is a mom and freelance writer living in Elmhurst.
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