Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It Might Be Time to "Talk the Talk"

My oldest daughter's fourth grade teacher gave her class "the talk" the other day. No, not THAT talk; Health and Human Development isn't until fifth grade, and let's be honest - if the school is really giving your child brand-new information in that area, you are way behind the eight ball. No, I mean the "it's time to start wearing deodorant" talk. Yep, she sat them down after PE class last week and told them to go out and get some deodorant - and wear it - because some of the kids really need it, and she didn't want to embarrass anyone by pointing fingers.

Now, several other mothers were upset by this event. "It's not her place to tell my child he needs deodorant," said one mom. Another told me, "I don't think she should have talked to the girls and boys together in case anyone got embarrassed." A third thought that the teacher should have e-mailed the parents of the odiferous children and shared her concerns with them directly, rather than addressing it with the entire class. Still another thought that the way she talked to them was "far too direct and not gentle enough" for her taste.

Me? I appreciate her concern for the children, as well as her directness. And I'd rather she spend her time writing lessons than e-mailing individual parents about personal hygiene issues. But the bottom line is, I've been in that classroom after recess on a 98-degree day often enough to know that THEY ALL NEED TO BE WEARING DEODORANT. DAILY. Even the ones who don't really "need" it yet stink to high heaven after a half hour on the playground. And as far as I'm concerned, until you've spent the afternoon in an enclosed space with 23 nine- and ten-year olds after an hour of PE class, you are NOT, in fact, entitled to an opinion on this subject.

But I wasn't there for "the talk", and some of the other moms were truly bothered by it. So I asked my (overly sensitive and easily upset) daughter to relate exactly what her teacher had said to the class. She told me, "She was really funny, Mommy. She said, 'Y'all need to ask your parents to go out and get you some deodorant, because you're coming to the age where these things are important. I don't want to embarrass anyone, so I'm not going to name any names, but some of you are growing up and it's time to think about personal hygiene.' Mom, she's SO right. Some of the boys REALLY smell." Uh, yeah, they do. And did I mention that the teacher is pregnant? Imagine a room full of sweaty pre-teen bodies under those conditions. I could barely stand to smell MYSELF when I was pregnant.

As parents, we like to think we know when our kids are ready for the next step. When are they ready to be weaned or potty-trained? Are they ready for preschool? Time for braces? Is it time for "the talk"? Ages and stages are such a big deal when our kids are babies and toddlers and preschoolers, but we tend to forget that it's just as big a deal when they hit elementary school. Some girls get their periods in fourth grade. Some boys start to have, um, "special" dreams as young as age 10. Puberty, with its body odor, growth spurts, changing bodies and voices, hair in weird places - it's happening whether we parents want it to or not. If kids aren't prepared for these things, what will they think when it happens to them? If we don't tell them what the next step is, how will they know?

Too many parents bury their heads in the sand and say, "S/he's too young! S/he shouldn't know about these things yet!" I hear you, I really do. And in a perfect world, our kids wouldn't need to know this stuff yet. But the reality is, they are probably hearing about puberty from their better-informed peers on the playground. Imagine my surprise the day my oldest child came home - from second grade - and said, "What's sex?" I gave her the standard "It's whether you're a boy or a girl, you know, like when you have to check off a box on a doctor's form or something" thing. She said, "I don't think that's it. Lilly said it has to do with grown-up private parts rubbing together to make babies." Oh. Oh my. Okay. My husband is STILL thankful he worked late that day.

But this is exactly my point: Wouldn't I rather she hear it from me? Under circumstances that I control? In a setting where she's free to ask questions and get correct information? As a former teacher, I can tell you that what our kids hear on the playground is usually WAY off-base. (When I taught sixth-grade science, I had a student tell me, "But my friend says you can't get pregnant the first time you have sex." Oh, boy. I rest my case.) And even though, for most third- or fourth-graders, the sex talk isn't necessary just yet, the puberty talk is. Trust me, it's hard to "unteach" what they've erroneously heard. No, it's far easier to give kids accurate information the first time, with our own morals and religious beliefs involved, than it is to erase what their classmates have told them already. And really, who would you rather your kids get their information from - you, or a bunch of kids who are just as (or even more!) uninformed about this stuff than they are?

So, as usual, when I found myself in a group of parents commenting on the deodorant issue, I couldn't keep my mouth shut and leave well enough alone. No, I had to put in my two cents, which is basically this: what better way to open a discussion of the changes their bodies will be going through than this? Let's just look at it as an opportunity to have a frank discussion with your child about what is coming. Yes, it's uncomfortable - for parents as well as kids. Yes, it's a tough subject to tackle. But being calm and matter-of-fact about it sends the message that we are comfortable talking with our kids, that we are willing to answer their questions, that we welcome them to come to us with ANYTHING at all. And isn't that the point? I want my girls to know that they can come to me and I won't be embarrassed or get upset at their questions. (Their dad, that's another story. I'm working on that one. He's mortified at the thought of them asking him anything, but he'll have to get over that.)

Slacker Mom Says... we can't bury our heads in the sand. Our kids will grow up. It won't go away just because we're ignoring it. We need to look for opportunities to talk with our kids about what's going on. We can't assume that they are too young, that they'll come to us when they want answers. Don't let their peer group educate them; teach them what they need to know, but with the emphasis on the moral standards that are important to your family. Open the dialogue. Whether it's puberty, religion, politics, finances, whatever, I want my kids to feel comfortable asking me for answers and sharing their concerns with me. It's important to me that they know I will always be there for them, that I will always help them with any problem, that I'll help provide answers and information when they need it. Because what's the alternative?

And for the record, my daughter started wearing deodorant last spring, as soon as it got hot again. I bought it, put in the bathroom, and said, "Use it. Every day. Here's how."


  1. I distinctly remember a moment like this with my mother. I had just finished a dance recital, where she noticed the hair in my armpits (and also noticed that I was not extending my arms completely because I was embarrassed). As soon as we got home she gave me a razor and showed me how to shave. That's just what a mother does :)

  2. Good for your mom! My friend N. told me yesterday that after the second time her 10-yr old daughter was teased about hair on her legs, she took her into the shower and showed her how to use Nair. I hate to see them grow so fast, but there it is.

  3. My mom was too embarassed to say ANYTHING to me about anything. I was having horrible stomach cramps one day, my sister's birthday. Ends up being first period time, and we were totally unprepared. My mom still used those horrible Kotex things with the belt. Horrible. I was so embarassed. All she said was, "Oh. I meant to talk to you about this sometime. Just remember this is a private thing so don't say anything to anyone about it." Yeah. Really healthy. Yes, I know adult children with moms have gone over the top in trying to be open with them about sex, where they tell the kids details of their own sex lives and such, much to the great discomfort of their children. But you have to prepare them for puberty and develop an atmosphere of trust. I have no idea how I learned about sex. School and books, probably. Would have been way better to learn about it at home, gradually as appropriate to age. With me, it was with everything. Make up? Nope. All of a sudden I was 18 and mom was like, "you look tired. Put some lipstick on or something." But until then, it wasn't talked about. I didn't feel like I was allowed! Deodorant? Nope. I ended up just getting some and using it because I felt it was time. I don't know that she knew about it. Shaving legs? She caught me in the bathroom shaving one day. "You realize that once you start, you'll have to keep it up." Yeah, mom. I look like an ape. It's time. Bra? "Mom. I'm the only one in the locker room without a bra."

    Can you imagine how hard that was? I can't even begin tell you. Because there wasn't a background of openess, it was always really, really hard for me to approach my mom when something came up. I think kids will have more angst toward parents who don't prepare them, making them deal with it on their own than if they are lovingly taught. I'm still a bit bitter about it! Can you tell? LOL

    Needless to say, I never want my kids to go through that. When Julia has asked simple questions, even like, "What does it mean to neuter a cat?" it's an opportunity for a small teaching moment. "But why a boy cat, mommy? They don't have babies." "Yes, dear, but a girl cat needs a boy cat in order to become pregnant with kittens." "Oh. But how?" And on it goes. Simple. Although she doesn't know specifics yet, at only 7, she knows that a rooster fertilizes some of the eggs that chickens lay, which makes them grow baby chicks. She knows that when mommy bleeds every month (which she found about about because she asked questions about the products on the shelf), it's because when you get bigger and your body is old enought to have babies, it tells you that you're not going to have a baby by getting rid of the part where a baby would normally grow. "But why isn't a baby in there, mommy?" "Because, just like with cats and chickens, a woman makes an egg. A really, teensie, weensie little egg, and the egg needs the daddy to fertilize it to grow into a baby." She didn't ask any more detailed questions like HOW a daddy fertilizes the egg, so I didn't expound. But I know that when she has that question, she'll know I will answer it.

    This is a big deal for me, Kelly. As you can tell by the fact that I took over your comment section! I just think we need to get beyond embarassment and just use opportunities to teach in small ways so that when they have questions they will easily come to you for the answers.

  4. Lynn, so well-said! I've always believed the same - that we answer what they're asking in an age-appropriate way, like you are with Julia. My girls knew about periods around preschool time b/c of the same reason Julia does - they found some tampons and asked what they're for. No, girls, they are not microphones...but they got an age appropriate explanation that they understood and weren't freaked out by. Taylor, being older and prone to asking incredibly detailed questions, knows a lot more than her peers, but she feels 100% comfortable coming to me to ask me about anything - as evidenced by the fact that 2 days ago she asked me what it meant to have 2 mommies, and further, how that was even possible because you need a daddy to fertlize the egg and make a baby. So now she has a little more information about a few more topics! And 2 weeks ago, a boy in her gifted class introduced the topic of gender reassignment, much to the teacher's dismay. She told them, "That's not something we're going to discuss as part of our unit on change," (yes, that was his answer to "what are some changes you know about?") but my child? She needed to know IF and HOW that was possible! I didn't get too into it, but I gave her a reasonable explanation and answered her questions. I'm so glad she asked ME rather than talking about it on the playground and getting misinformation from this child! And BTW, my mom had those old-fashioned belt things too. Thank goodness our daughters have more options!!!