Why puberty education in the U.S. starts too late, say experts, leaving kids to wonder, ‘Am I normal?’

Naked child from the back staring down with graphics and the word
Puberty lessons, as part of sex education, typically begin in the fifth grade. Many experts say that's too late. (Collage: Getty Images/Nathalie Cruz for Yahoo Life)

Yahoo Life’s School Report Card: Sex Education series examines what adolescents are being taught about sexuality — and why it's about more than the birds and the bees.

Sex education has become a hotly debated topic, with some parents pushing back on schools that try to teach it to students in a comprehensive way. But what gets lost in the mix is the fact that adolescent growth and development, or puberty education, is an essential part of sex education — and many experts say it is falling short.

When asked to describe how well schools are doing in terms of puberty and sex education, pediatrician and health educator Dr. Trish Hutchison, co-founder and chief medical officer of the digital health platform Girlology and co-author of You-ology: A Puberty Guide for Every Body, tells Yahoo Life that the current state of things is lacking for several reasons.

“Many states and districts have huge barriers” to providing sex education and lessons on puberty, Hutchison says. “Only 22 states require that it be medically accurate. That blows my mind.”

Within schools, “a lot of the resistance” is from adults, including parents, other caregivers and administrators, says health education consultant Lori Reichel, noting that for some parents, the discomfort starts when their kids are young and they’re teaching their children about their body, shying away from using correct anatomical terms.

“We have so many slang terms,” Reichel, the creator of the Talk Puberty app and author of Common Questions Children Ask About Puberty, tells Yahoo Life. “That creates an instant barrier that if my parent can’t even say vulva or penis, how in the world can we talk about my menstrual cycle? We don’t have other words for nose, but we do for testicles.”

But providing students with comprehensive sex and puberty education helps put them on “a path to be able to be autonomous,” says Brittany McBride, associate director of sex education and training at Advocates for Youth, working for comprehensive sex education since the 1980s. “For some adults, I think that makes them very much uncomfortable,” she says. “The loss of control, the loss of the ability of being able to dictate what a person deserves to learn or to be able to deem what’s important to teach people about has always been a challenge in the education field.”

Health educators, McBride says, are there to partner with parents, who can frame the health information within the context of their values. “We can talk about the science, the facts and the information and we’re going to send the kids home to continue the conversation," she says, "and then you can talk about your values and beliefs at home."

Why puberty education is important

Kim Cook, health education specialist and founder of the Sex Education Alliance, tells Yahoo Life that kids are naturally curious about their bodies from a young age. “As they grow and develop, they are fully aware of the changes they see in their peers and themselves, but they do not have an understanding of what is happening to their bodies.”

That’s where parents can feel uncomfortable — and where puberty lessons in school come in. Cook says that comprehensive puberty education led by trained health educators helps young people understand “how, when and why our bodies change,” and cover more than just physical health. “As we know, the psychological and emotional changes are every bit as important to address as the physical changes,” she says.

Cook points out that “kids don’t just wonder about menstruation and growth — they wonder if they are normal. In fact, ‘Am I normal?’ is probably the most typical question a young person ponders as they develop and grow.” She adds: “Excellent puberty education by a qualified educator gives kids a framework to help them understand that yes, they are indeed ‘normal,’ whatever normal means.”

And experts say who is put in charge of teaching these lessons is crucial too. “We are dealing with some people who are teaching it and shouldn’t be,” says Reichel. “There are teachers who don’t want to teach this. You see it in their body language and tone.” Research shows that some teachers feel insecure teaching sex education and find it difficult to talk about certain subjects in the classroom.

When the person leading these conversations is “feeling awkward,” says Hutchison, “it adds to the stigma that this is dirty and gross. You need someone comfortable having this conversation.”

That’s why Cook says it’s important to have health educators with specialized training in puberty education to help kids learn “using comprehensive, inclusive, skills-based curriculum,” while still keeping parents involved.

Puberty lessons start too late

When lessons on puberty do happen in schools, they typically take place in the fifth grade. But many experts say that’s too late — especially given the fact that an increasing number of girls are starting puberty earlier than in years past, and particularly in cases where parents aren’t comfortable or willing to discuss it with their children ahead of time.

“Girls can start puberty between 8 to 12 years old and boys 9 to 14 years old,” points out Hutchison. So, for some children, they’ve been going through puberty-related changes for one or two years before it’s ever addressed by a trained health educator at school.

That can wind up feeling “scary and isolating,” Dr. Kathryn Melland Lowe, a pediatrician and co-author of You-ology: A Puberty Guide for Every Body, tells Yahoo Life. “Nearly all pediatricians have seen a child come into their clinic afraid they have breast cancer because they have a breast bud. It’s normal development. Or a child has had a wet dream and is terrified something is wrong. Or had their period and is terrified something is wrong.”

If children learn about puberty before those changes happen, “they are excited about the changes,” Hutchison says. “They face it with much more confidence and less anxiety. ... It’s just a plus to their physical and mental well-being. We could take away a lot of anxiety and body-image and low self-esteem issues by educating kids that these changes are normal and they’re not secretive or shameful changes.”

Puberty is "not a one and done conversation"

Sex education, including lessons on puberty, are “usually taught in one class period,” says Hutchison. Experts say that’s not enough, as children's and adolescents’ bodies — and their questions and concerns — rapidly change over time. “It’s not a one and done conversation, which is what the school is doing,” says Hutchison. “It’s really sad.”

Lowe agrees, saying that when puberty lessons are a one-time talk only, “we’re really upping the shame and secrecy around it.”

Ideally, says Sara Flowers, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, developmentally appropriate sex education would be integrated into school-based curricula from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Starting in elementary school, that would look like “learning about the right names for your body parts, consent, boundaries, like who is allowed to touch you and asking for consent for playing with friend’s toys,” she says. That would be followed by “learning about puberty and how everybody’s bodies change as they grow, healthy relationships with friends and even antibullying."

Flowers says that, for parents, finding out if your child’s school teaches sex education, including lessons on puberty, is important. “The first thing you can do is not assume that your kids are getting the sex ed in school,” she says. “To find out, you only have to ask. That can be as simple as saying, ‘Have you had sex education? What did you learn about?’”

That said, school sex ed and puberty lessons are really meant to supplement the conversations already taking place at home, says Lowe. Flowers agrees, saying that, ideally, as young people are growing up, they’re also having informative conversations about their bodies with trusted, caring adults and family members.

By having these ongoing, “tiny little conversations,” says McBride, it not only helps make it a natural way to communicate with your kids about these important topics, but it also takes the pressure off from trying to “cover everything in ‘The Talk.’”

These regular candid talks can also strengthen parents’ relationships with their kids. “Remember this: When parents and caregivers initiate honest and open conversations about bodies and puberty at home with their kids, young people learn that the adults in their lives are people they can turn to when they have questions or need help,” says Flowers.

The benefits of co-ed sex education

Some school districts still split up children according to their sex, which Lowe says is doing a real disservice to kids. Cook agrees, saying it’s unfortunate that kids are divided into “boys and girls” when teaching them about the physical and emotional changes they will experience as they grow. “Of course kids need to understand what is happening to their own bodies, but they are also super curious about the pubertal changes of the opposite sex as well,” Cook says.

But it goes beyond mere curiosity. When kids are separated to discuss puberty, “we are furthering the message that ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ are incapable of understanding one another,” says Cook. “When we educate kids in a co-ed skills-based classroom about puberty, they become comfortable communicating with one another — which proves critical as they begin dating.”

Dividing kids into groups of boys and girls is also less inclusive, say experts. “It’s important that all young people learn about what puberty looks like for every body and gender,” says Flowers. “There’s no reason to split kids up for this conversation, which we know still happens — in fact, grouping kids according to sex assigned at birth can be harmful to everyone, particularly intersex, trans and nonbinary youth.”

Puberty looks different for different folks, says Flowers, who stresses that it’s important for everyone to learn about what puberty is for all bodies, not just their own, and “helps young people build awareness, understanding and empathy for others.” However, keeping information separate by gender or bodies “causes harm because reinforcing secrecy about bodies perpetuates shame and marginalizes folks who don’t identify within the parameters of the gender binary,” she says.

When puberty lessons are age-appropriate, medically accurate, inclusive and comprehensive, “the mystery of puberty is replaced with information and education,” says Cook. “Rather than guessing, gossiping and being misinformed by their peers or the internet, they can learn from experienced educators in a coed setting. They are in a safe academic space to get questions answered and curiosities resolved.”

Helpful resources for parents

Experts say there are a wealth of resources available to parents — as well as schools — to make it easier to navigate conversations and lessons around sexual development. For schools, several experts cited the National Sex Education Standards as a key resource that promotes quality sex education, including puberty lessons, for K-12 schools. In addition, the nonprofit organization Gender Spectrum published the first guide to gender-inclusive puberty education that, it notes, “recognizes and affirms all students."

For families, Planned Parenthood has learning guides about puberty, bodies, sex and relationships geared towards both parents and teens. It also offers puberty videos in English and Spanish, which parents can watch with their kids and discuss after, while Amaze provides age-appropriate animated videos on sex education to help inform both kids and their parents.

There are also a plethora of apps, including Reichel’s Talk Puberty and Hutchison and Lowe’s Girlology, as well as Planned Parenthood’s chatbot Roo, created to respond to teens’ questions about puberty, bodies, identity and more for free, 24/7, on smartphones.

“Everyone deserves access to sex education, including education on puberty and what it means,” says Flowers. “It’s never too early or too late to start.”

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