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Kids need to understand puberty
By Angela Welsh and MaryAnn Keim
Published March 6, 2008
Turn on the television, open any newspaper or magazine and you realize that we live in a highly sexualized society. Preteens/teens are bombarded by the media to look sexy, be sexy and act sexy, yet they lack the very knowledge that can help them understand and process these images.
The American Psychological Association called this phenomenon "sexualization" and conducted a study in 2000 to find out its effects on girls. This study linked "sexualization" to the three most common health problems in girls: Eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem.
Boys aren't immune, either. Recent statistics show that teenage pregnancy is on the rise for the first time in 14 years, AIDS among teenagers also is on the rise, and a recent New York City Health Department Teen Safety Report stated that teenage dating violence has risen by 40 percent since 1999. It seems as if our preteens and teenagers are in crisis and it is up to us to help them.
One of the most important steps in helping these children process and navigate this maze of sexual awareness is to start with a thorough education about puberty. Puberty is a time when our bodies and minds go through their biggest transformations. It's when we change from children into adults; everything changes both physically and mentally. These changes occur in both females and males. It can be a very confusing and scary time for these preteens. It is a time when children are forming their basic body images and where their self-esteem takes its biggest hit. During this time (ages 8-12), children worry a lot about whether they are "normal" and they want to "fit in," but kids aren't always being taught that everyone develops differently, so they sometimes end up feeling weird, inadequate and different.
Talking to or teaching our children about puberty is a forgotten lesson. These classes are the first to go during budget cuts because there isn't a test score by which to measure them. Even though AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are being talked about it schools, most educators fail when it comes to their students' knowledge about their changing bodies. How are these children to understand and adhere to "safe sex" when most of them don't know what an ovary is? It's putting the cart before the horse and it just makes it more confusing for the child. No one is explaining to them that the urges they are feeling are all part of puberty and are normal.
I've called on many schools both private and public and conducted puberty workshops in schools throughout the country. It is astounding how little kids know about their changing bodies and how much misinformation they have. This is why I can't stress enough how important it is for parents of preteens to start talking to their children about puberty - right now! Our children need the reassurance that this knowledge can bring them.
It also helps build a relationship with your child that will continue into adulthood. According to Lynda Madaras, author of the What's Happening to My Body book for girls and boys: "Parents need to realize what a powerful bond they can forge with their children if they will 'be there' for them during puberty - not to mention how well the enduring trust and respect will serve all concerned in later years when they are faced with making decisions about sex."
As a parent of girls ages 10 and 13, I know how hard it is to start the conversation. Here are some of the tips we offer parents during the "Puberty Prep" workshop our business presents:
- "Bit n' Pieces" is better than a whole bite. Don't overwhelm your kids with information.
- Anywhere is perfect, nowhere is not. These conversations can start anywhere: Doing dishes, in the car on the way to practice, etc. It doesn't matter where you talk to your child as long as you are talking.
- Use your personal experiences and share how it felt when you were a teenager. Times may have changed but the emotions are the same. You could start with "I remember I was so embarrassed when ... "
- Use the "Period Piece" kit for girls and "All About Me" kit for boys as icebreakers. They are filled with useful, timely information and make a good starting point.
I often think of what Madaras wrote "If you are there for your kid when they are wondering, they more likely will turn to you for advice when they are deciding."
So, start talking. Start today.
Angela Welsh and MaryAnn Keim own and operate I'm All Girl Inc. (and Boys Too!), a company created and dedicated to helping educate preteens (and their parents) about puberty. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.