My eldest daughter was just about to celebrate her first double-digit birthday and changes were happening fast. There she was: beautiful, healthy and full of spunk. I could see the beginning of curves and mood swings that clearly pointed to puberty. “No big deal, I can handle this,” I said to myself. Being a pediatrician had given me a lot of practice introducing young girls to their first periods. Somehow, though, seeing my own daughter’s turn at the process made my voice quiver.
I wanted her introduction to puberty to be a memorable occasion so I took her to a fancy restaurant where I could talk to her about it in detail. Unlike my own upbringing, sexuality has always been an open subject in our household. My daughter knew some general concepts about the birds and the bees but not the details. So there we were, just the two of us, as I spoke to her about the facts of life and her first menstrual period. She vaguely looked at me, seeming more interested in the happenings of the restaurant. What a let down! “Well,” I thought, “what she didn’t get from me she’ll review in health class this year.”
After spending some time at her school investigating the health curriculum, I was discouraged. The previous health class had been given two years earlier. The gym teacher taught the boys and the science teacher taught the girls. This particular year, the new science teacher was a male. It wasn’t looking very good, so I sheepishly volunteered my services. I received an unexpected, resounding “Yes! When can you come and how about teaching the middle school girls too?” I felt a bit overwhelmed; perhaps I’d bitten off more than I could chew.
Although I had essentially already taught about first periods during pre-teen girl check-ups in my office, it was not quite the same as preparing several classes for 9 and 10 year olds, at my daughter’s school, no less. I invested hours reading and reviewing videos, tapes, and curriculums on health education and sexuality. I must admit that in the process I also learned a considerable amount.
Here is one of the facts I picked up during my studies: How do most kids find out about “the birds and the bees”? They hear about it from their peers rather than their parents, or, they make up their own version of the events. So, did I want the youngster who sat next to my daughter at school to explain menstruation to her? This is how misconceptions are propagated. If peers were going to be a source of my daughter’s sexuality information, then why not provide them all the right information to share. I secretly started to rehearse at my practice whenever the opportunity presented itself. Every 10 or 11 year old girl that came through the office heard bits and pieces of my future health class.
My daughter’s feelings remained the one big stumbling block. How would she feel having her mom teach her classmates about puberty and menstruation? Initially, she was not very happy. In fact, she was down right mad. “How embarrassing! Do you really have to?” she cried. After a lot of listening and some brainstorming we came up with a solution that was comfortable for the both of us. I would present the class to her at home before anyone else got to hear it, so she would know what was to be said beforehand. This compromise also provided me the opportunity to rehearse in front of a real audience member.
By the time the big day arrived, my daughter’s class had been primed with a short introduction provided by the gym teacher. The girls walked in with a burst of energy and giggles and took their seats. Like my daughter, there were no shy girls in this group. I felt like we were in a locker room and I was about to give them a pep talk. These girls were intense and exuded an attitude that said, “Okay, here I am, teach me!” Or was it: “Okay, here I am… what do you know that I don’t already know?” I wasn’t quite sure.
As I began reviewing the physical and emotional changes that were about to occur during puberty, the room grew quiet. Naturally, there was some giggling. Words like “genitals” and “vulva” typically provoked this, but we moved along. I could see their faces light up as certain issues struck a nerve. We discussed the first menstrual period (what if starts at school?) and when to wear a bra. There was a short exercise to work on, a video, and then time for questions and answers. They seemed like sponges, soaking up every bit of available information. Time quickly ticked by. By the end of the session, the girls were relaxed and busy writing anonymous questions and comments on postcards for the next class. These included frequently asked questions from the pre-teen set such as: When will I get my first period? What about cramps? Where do babies come from?
I felt a sense of fulfillment and privilege to be able to introduce this sensitive topic to such a receptive audience. I wished the girls’ mothers could have seen their daughters’ interest, and their touching shyness about the topic of sexuality. Talking to children about sexuality can be stressful task for any parent, but children need to know the basic facts about how their bodies function.
The school bell rang and I was jolted back to reality. The girls left the classroom with their usual giggling and buzz of excitement. I started to collect my materials when I noticed my daughter approaching. She leaned towards me and whispered, “Good job, Mom.” I felt a sigh of relief as she started to give me a “high five.” But then we hugged instead!
Pediatrician, author and mother Dr. Chrystal de Freitas is dedicated to family health education. Since 1993, she has presented her Healthy Chats for Girls mother-daughter seminars and The Birds and the Bees with Ease! parent seminars. She recently released My First Period Kit & DVD featuring age-appropriate information for mothers to share with their pre-teen girls at home. Learn more at www.healthychats.com.