Early Puberty

Laurie and Debbie say:

Last July, Laurie met a woman who worked for Planned Parenthood and taught sex ed in Bay Area schools. She said that she now teaches in junior high school and high school but that she wanted to be teaching in elementary schools as well. She said the puberty beginning at 7 was not uncommon. Laurie was probably more surprised than maybe she should have been, and did some research about it. We included it as part of our conversation at the Kids and Body Image Panel at BlogHer

The fact that puberty is starting significantly earlier for girls and boys is not new news. The quotes below are from a study about 10 years ago.

There are new guidelines for pediatricians that are guaranteed to shock: girls who start to develop breasts and pubic hair at age six or seven are not necessarily “abnormal.” (Kaplowitz, et al., 1999).

….Results found that in their seventh year, 27% of African-American girls and 7% of white girls had begun breast development and/or had pubic hair. Between ages eight and nine, those numbers had increased to 48% of African-American girls and 15% of white girls. National Research Center for Women and Families

A new report by the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society (LWPES), a nationwide network of physicians headquartered in Stanford, California, suggests that it is normal for white girls as young as 7 and black girls as young as 6 to start developing breasts. This conclusion was based on a study of 17,000 girls between the ages of 3 and 12 conducted by the Pediatric Research in Office Settings (PROS) network of 1,500 pediatricians nationwide.

And we’re also talking about boys.

The early sexual development of girls has received tremendous media attention, but there has been no similar attention to boys. A new study of signs of puberty among boys between 8 and 19 may change that, because it shows that early puberty is also happening among boys.

I’m surprised, as is Tracee Sioux at Empowering Girls: So Sioux Me, that this has not been in major public discussion. (In spite of what the CNN quote above says.)

This raises a number of questions for me. These are just a few of them.

One prime characteristic of childhood is that it’s the time we deal with the world before the surge of adolescent hormones. What are the effects of a shortened childhood development?

What are the implications of “hot” clothes for girl tweens and cool adult clothes for boy tweens when they have adolescent bodies as opposed to children’s bodies?

How does raunch clothing on young girls relate to this? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

What are the effects of adolescent hormones on children who are still playing with toys?

We worry about pedophiles harming children; what about men who are attracted to nubile or developed bodies, and would not be attracted to 7 to 10-year-olds with child bodies?

When we’re talking about early puberty, what changes in the implications of the ways society permits or encourages boys to have a more intense adolescent sexuality than we do for girls?

And finally how do we help parents and children to deal with this effectively?

6 thoughts on “Early Puberty

  1. The other question I would ask is whether this is actually something dramatically new. Given that data is scarce for previous generations, how do we know what has been normal historically, especially when we’re talking about first signs of puberty, which can occur years before menarche and thus are not well-documented? I would expect that there would be quite a lot of natural variation. According to the NRCWF article, “The study… is unique, making it difficult to know exactly how the age of breast and pubic hair development has changed over time. Previous standards of “normal puberty” were set more than 30 years ago, based on a study of less than 200 girls in a British orphanage in the 1960s (Marshall and Tanner 1969).”

    Btw, the way this post is written, it’s not clear that the two articles on female puberty you link to are discussing the same study.

  2. I don’t know much about this subject, although I have heard these sorts of facts before. It always makes me wonder …. it is really new? It seems strange to think that something has shifted so drastically in this generation that we’re suddenly developing earlier. Are kids really developing earlier, or is it just that it’s actually being studied now?

    I guess a better question than “are kids really developing earlier”, is are kids *at large* developing earlier? I would think the results of this might be skewed–if it’s based on reports from pediatricians, you’ve already got a subset of a) people who have the resources to take their kids to a doctor for non-emergencies, b) to an extent, kids who already have health issues and that’s why they’re seeing the doctor, and c) pediatricians who chose to take part.

    [When I reached the end of the article, I found a paragraph addressing these concerns–but not convincingly. Instead, it conjectures without basis that kids who haven’t shown symptoms of puberty “might” have been brought to the clinics as well, and that “might” have balanced it out. It also mentions anecdotally that people *think* kids are maturing earlier, but that perception can be affected by many things.]

    In looking over the original article, I see several issues. First, there were only 64 locations–not a lot compared to the number of people in the world. Secondly, the article itself describes the doctors as “self-selecting”–thus doctors who have seen this are more likely to jump in in the first place.

    Also, it seems irresponsible to make declarations about African American development based on this study–90% of the participants were white, and “most of the rest” were black. Even if you use the remaining 10%, that’s only 1700 girls, which combined with the other confounding facts seems a small sample. (I don’t remember enough of my statistics to run the math and calculate standard deviations, significance, etc.)

    The article mentions two other things I find interesting. First, the traditional standards for onset of puberty were apparently derived from studying a mere 200 girls in the ’60s. Secondly, the age of onset of menstruation has remained constant for white girls and has changed by 6 months for black girls (again, statistically significant? I don’t know.).

    This says to me that the basis for declaring onset of puberty wasn’t solid to begin with, and that the changes must not be that drastic if the most life-altering (to my mind) effects of puberty are running on the same timeline.

    I’m rambling a little. Sorry. As for the questions you posed, I only have any input on the last, helping children deal with. Making a big deal out of it is probably not the way to go. I say this because I knew someone who was convinced her daughter started puberty at 7 and immediately had the sex talk, bought her books, announced it to the whole family, etc. etc. All this served to do was make her more self-conscious.

  3. I had Precocious Puberty, in the 80’s as did my Mum in the 50’s and now my 9 y/o son. For us it’s a genetic tendency, along with growing very tall early.

    I started my periods when I was 7 and had a B cup at age 6. I was as tall and had the same size feet as my mum, gran and teacher when I was 8. I was told about periods and sex at the level I was able to understand it and at the times when it was important for me to know to be safe. I’m following the same advice with my son.

    Thankfully he is developing early but slower than I did. It’s distressing for him to be having sexual feelings and not knowing what to do with them, but we’re getting the appropriate medical help. It’s hard for him to feel different though.

    As for the wider implications, there are more girls entering puberty at the kind of age I did. My son’s endocrinology consultant has been working for over 30 years and he commented that it’s not uncommon for girls to start their periods at age 8 now.

    He said it’s unlikely I would have been referred to him as a child if my periods had started after age 6, unless it was suspected that I had a brain tumour on the Pituitary gland. As there is a strong genetic link in my family it wouldn’t be an issue.

  4. This post was really more mine than Debbie’s, so I wanted to respond to the commenters. I was only able to read the first two comments quickly before I left for the airport this morning on my way to a show (bless my cat/house sitters!).

    I’m writing this on the plane because I’m going to be mostly offline for the next week (a combination of focus and circumstance). I’ll fax this comment from the hotel for Deb to post.

    So, being Google-less, this is going to be a conversation from my own experience.

    I grew up in the 1950s. I was very observant of the bodies of my contemporaries, in part because I was always the youngest in my class, and I was checking out my future.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I have two daughters, ten years apart in age. I raised them over 30 years between 1963 and the middle 1990s. Inevitably, I was aware of their, and their friends’, adolescent development. Most recently, I’ve taught belly dance to middle and high school kids, and beyond my direct personal experience I’ve been paying attention to adolescent development in the larger society. Over this time, I’ve seen puberty arriving earlier.

    Finally, when I spoke at BlogHer this summer, a number of mothers spoke to me after the panel about early puberty and their children.

    I think that the decreasing age of the onset of puberty in my lifetime (at least for some children) is very real.

  5. At this point in history it looks as though two of the major causes of early puberty and other hormonal abnormalities in ours and other species are estrogenic plastics and hormones fed to food animals. A fair survey of the situation is Michele Trankina’s article The Hazards of Environmental Estrogens. One anomaly in human males suspected to be on the increase due to environmental pollution is hypospadias, affecting about one in every 150 human male babies, in which the urethra terminates short of the end of the penis, either on the shaft, on the scrotum, or even on the perineum. Gross morphological abnormalities like this that would obviously affect fertility in many species as well as less obvious disorders such as cancers make estrogenic pollution one of the more frightening threats to animal life. Attempting to clean up such messes will no doubt occupy the next several generations of biochemists and geneticists.

    In the meantime, a world of sexually mature babies and children strikes me as a horrifying living metaphor for our metaphysical loss of innocence. Considering children younger than ten able to conceive makes my head and heart hurt. Are we to learn over the coming decades how young a mother can be and still survive childbirth? Will parents need to negotiate the practicalities of infant girls menstruating in their diapers? As childhood dies and we lose those years of prepubescent asexuality, will adults become more protective of the young or merely more predatory?

    I can barely wait to find out.

  6. Thanks for the link. I’ve been making the connection between early puberty and the marketing strategy to use sex to sell to small children and pit them against parents, and increased child pornography over at my Empowering Girls website.

    The funny thing about the outrage over Miley Sirus showing her provocative nude back is that it was sandwiched between two commercials showing half-nude young girls selling soap and body lotion and it’s become so normalized that no one noticed. We’re all participating in a form of pedophilia every time we see an ad with a half naked child or teenager.

    I’ve just reviewed So Sexy So Soon in a series this week and I can’t recommend the book enough. Every parent, every lawmaker, every educator should read it. http://traceesioux.blogspot.com/2008/10/10-steps-to-undo-sexualized-childhood.html

Join the Conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.