Boys are Hitting Puberty Earlier: What Does This Mean for Parents?
Don't be afraid to have the "talk" with your sons sooner rather than later
Though studies from recent years have concluded that today's girls are entering puberty at earlier ages than generations past, a new health report now reveals that boys too are experiencing physical maturation at younger ages than their predecessors.
The study, "Secondary Sexual Characteristics in Boys," published online by the journal Pediatrics, reported that "genital and pubic hair growth, and early testicular volumes [occurred] 6 months to 2 years earlier than in past studies, depending on the characteristic and race/ethnicity."
But while news that our girls are entering the sexual arena earlier is often reported—and read—with a tinge of fear, Nancy L. Brown, Ph.D. and education projects manager at Palo Alto Medical Foundation, says the same concern need not be applied to boys.
"Girls who start puberty earlier tend to be at higher risk for getting involved with the wrong crowd, alcohol, drugs and sex," said Brown. "It's not a guarantee, but the world doesn't know how to treat a girl who looks 14 and is really 9. The opposite is true for early maturing boys. They tend to be taller, stronger, more athletic. Socially, it puts them at the top of the pecking order; they get to be the alpha dog earlier. For girls, developing early makes them awkward—she's the kid in fourth grade with boobs. It's not the same social response."
Earlier this year, "Good Morning America" reported that by age 7, 23 percent of African-American girls had begun developing breasts; comparatively, 10 percent of Caucasian girls had done the same. The new study, which included data from 4,131 boys aged 6 to 16, also showed African-American boys developing earlier than their peers.
Though the study shows genital changes and pubic hair development in boys now as young as 10—as opposed to 1970s data that reported shifts at the ages of 11 and 13—Brown says there's more to male puberty symptoms than just developing larger testicles.
"The earlier boys start to grow, the earlier they'll have their first wet dream, feelings about girls, and they're gonna stink—their body odor kicks it up 10 notches. They get hair around their penis and under their arms. And all those things usually start a year before parents even notice. The average kid going through puberty puts on about 10 inches and gains 40 pounds and they just think they're getting fat, so parents really need to start talking to their kids way earlier about what their bodies are doing and what they're capable of."
Before parents cringe at the thought of having the "sex talk" though, Allison Macbeth, a sexual health educator, doesn't believe there should just be one "talk." Instead, Macbeth said, "it should be an ongoing discussion from the time the child can talk." Still, she doesn't deny that the conversation is sometimes difficult to have.
"Parents don't talk to boys as much as girls because it's more difficult to tell when they're physically maturing—they don't have a definite marker like a girl does with her first period," said Macbeth. "And mothers and sons agree that it's best and easier for boys to talk with their fathers about sex, but unfortunately when they do, the communication often consists of exaggerated stories, jokes, and keeps sensitive issues at a distance."
Despite the tendency to venture into immature territory, Macbeth still feels the male-to-male interaction is imperative, especially in counteracting what boys are taught, often incorrectly, from their peers or the Internet.
"Parents should think more about the role of the father, or the male role model, in educating the son," said Macbeth. "Boys benefit from this, even if they are just hanging out and talking about celebrity stories, TV, movies, and not sex. When raised in a culture of open discussion—rather than when sex is seen as taboo or secretive—young people can ask questions and are empowered to learn and understand what they want, rather than living in ignorance."
Doctors and researchers still struggle to explain exactly why kids are experiencing puberty earlier, or why the chance is greater in those of African-American ethnicity.
"Nobody actually knows; it's how much light were exposed to, it's the toxins in our environment, it's the hormones we feed in our dairy, it's how we treat our chickens," Brown said.
However, Brown added that the one constant contributing factor is high obesity rates, which alter the body's hormone levels.
"The more fat you have, the earlier you go into puberty, " Brown said.
So, at the very least, keep your kids exercising and at a healthy weight.