When I was eleven years old I received a package in the mail. It wasn’t my birthday or Chanuka or any other special occasion but it was addressed just to me. Inside was a beautiful boxed set of floral stationery from my aunt in Chicago. The attached note read ‘mazel tov on becoming a woman – we love you’ and I remember feeling excited (and a bit embarrassed) that someone had sent me a present to celebrate my first period. That was over fifty years ago and the positive message of that note has stayed with me to this day. My mother and her sisters successfully conveyed a powerful lesson to their children – the healthy development of our bodies is a gift to appreciate, a blessing to applaud.
How we view our children’s growth from childhood to adolescence – their changing bodies, volatile moods and fluctuating opinions – and how we address those changes, will set the tone for how our kids internalize their own attitudes. Although we are constantly conveying subtle messages about our kids’ bodies from infancy on, the first major opportunity for parents to present a strong message is when our kids are about to enter puberty. The days of stationery boxes have long passed but we should be clear even today to tell our kids that we celebrate their physical and emotional development with all that it brings. The timing of that message can be tricky – too early and our kids don’t know what we’re talking about; too late and they’ve already asked their friends. Parents today assume that their guidance is hardly needed since explicit data on puberty is on the internet and available on kids’ cellphones – but the opposite is true. Specifically because they are bombarded with graphic information from magazines to movies, our kids have a deep yearning to know how we feel as parents – our ideas, outlooks and expectations. Despite the discomfort we may feel about the topic, parental input is crucial to how our kids view themselves. They may squirm, sulk or argue – but they need to hear us and what we have to say as parents – ideally before they reach double digits.
What should we be saying? It is helpful to divide our job into three areas: present the physiology, address the psychology and discuss the theology. Our kids have the reasonable assumption that we experienced the physical stages of puberty and survived to tell the tale: hormones, hair, sweat, skin, moods, muscles, height, weight and drama around our looks. Girls need to know about menstruation – how to handle periods and why we have cycles of monthly bleeding. Boys need to know about nocturnal emissions and why there is semen. And they need to know something about each other’s development to understand their own bodies better. These don’t have to be long talks or prolonged lessons in human anatomy. Often it starts when your daughter has breast budding and wants a bra or your kids clearly need to use deodorant or are upset about acne. Those moments offer entrees into these topics which get expanded from time to time. Thankfully there are wonderful books today to help teach the biology – sometimes overly explicit and at times too vague about specific behaviors. But our parental role is to convey an attitude about these facts – celebrating development and its normalcy while being empathic to its special anxieties.
We want our kids to be comfortable with themselves without them obsessing over their bodies. We want their big changes to give them confidence not insecurity. It is up to us to convey that paradox – our bodies are amazing but private; powerful but controlled; useful but pleasurable. As parents we can prioritize health over looks, books over mirrors. That means helping our tweens and teens focus their energies on outlets like learning, sports, hobbies and chessed while their bodies and brains are flooded with estrogen and testosterone. Watching movies or going out together, even the Shabbat table – can provide times for deeper conversations about nature and nurture, popularity, pornography, yichud, masturbation. We need to say that while it’s a gift from Hashem that they are developing reproductive organs, their ultimate use is still years away. Eventually they need to hear about sex from us, not just how but why, so we transmit a sense of awe and meaning about how our bodies and relationships work. Our job as parents is to get excited and be appreciative of the transformation our kids undergo on their path to maturity.