Illustration by Allison S. Tremblay

Girls Growing Up
By Ashley Dougherty '71

The way I remember it, I was in the sixth grade and 11 years old when my Girl Scout troop watched the filmstrip. Called something like “Now You Are A Woman,” it seemed to say that shortly we would all be dancing through fields of daisies. I found that hard to believe. Behind our Mississippi house lay a field that I walked through on my way to the creek where I caught tadpoles. But that field was full of burrs and cowpats: dance there and I'd have to hose down my sneakers before going in the house.

So I ignored the filmstrip, just as I'd ignored the more accurate information that my mother had given me. Not only did it seem improbable, I had other things on my mind. My older brother had told me that I was too young to read Moby Dick, and I was determined to prove him wrong.

It turned out that I didn't need the information until eighth grade and my 13th birthday, when my first period arrived. I now know that it was right on schedule -- in 1950, the average age for menarche, the onset of menstruation, fell to 13 years of age, where it seemed to be staying. As I recently learned at my 25th Reunion, however, that and a lot more has changed since my classmates and I were preteen-agers.

First, since 1988 the average age of menarche has dropped even further. The drop is not great: from 13 years to 12.5 years or less, depending on the study. But it moves it back, for many girls, from seventh to sixth grade. As the bell-shaped curve has moved lower, so has the low end of the average range (which now starts at 11.5 years of age) and the age of the earliest to start, who are now only 9.5, or even 8.5.1

Other things have changed as well. Granted, we could read about sex and violence when we were in junior high -- but only if we could read between the lines. We didn't have to deal with the explicit information that is now omnipresent in television, movies, radio and popular music, and newspapers and magazines. We weren't bombarded with public service messages about rape and AIDS that link sex with death in a high-Gothic manner.

Many of the changes have been for the good. We all remember junior high classmates whose parents ignored the topic of sex ed; so it's probably just as well that schools have assumed a larger role in conveying this information. It's probably also a plus that preteen girls today learn about topics like date rape and sexually transmitted diseases -- things we didn't hear about until relatively late in life. Nevertheless, from our perspective, these changes -- biological and social -- have shortened the span of childhood. They affect preteen girls today in a number of ways:

flower bullet Early maturation shortens the time when girls can be relatively carefree, not worrying about whether their monthly period is early or late, whether they can get to a bathroom and have the necessary supplies, whether anyone else knows. The younger the girl, the harder it is to manage the logistics, especially outside home.

flower bullet Lagging behind the girls about one year, the boys their own age are not ready to be boyfriends. Other girls (even parents) start teasing developing girls about boys. Platonic girl-boy friendships break up sooner than they used to.

flower bullet Friendships among girls can suffer. When hormones arrive early, girls have a shorter time during which they play the cooperative childhood games (dolls, dress-up, house). At an earlier age than in the past, some girls have a secret that they are hiding from the others. And the miasma, composed of equal parts self-denigration and cat-fighting, that often accompanies female puberty descends on them at an earlier age. (For a dead-on description of this, see Margaret Atwood's novel Cat's Eye.)

flower bullet Most importantly, early maturation puts preteen girls at risk of actual physical harm. They may be “hit on” by older boys and men; if they develop a negative body image at this time, they can be emotionally vulnerable to such approaches. And the younger the girl, the less able she is to protect herself against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Early maturers are biologically capable of becoming pregnant while still emotionally and cognitively immature. In 1992, approximately 12,220 babies were born to girls between the ages of 10 and 14. For these girls, the average age at menarche was 11.8 years. Most of the fathers were in their 20s.

But how much — aside from the issue of physical safety — does it really matter? So childhood is a little shorter, so early adolescence is hell. Isn't this something that daughters and parents just have to get through, waiting until they are safe on the other side? To those of us with preteen daughters, it seems that early adolescence often sets the pattern for high school and afterwards. In particular, it has a powerful effect on girl-girl friendships, which can add so much to our lives.

If it matters, then we need to help our daughters learn to manage the process. What are some ways we've done that?

Consulted the experts, of course, while weeding out the crackpots — a camp into which I'd put those (and they do exist) who advocate semistarvation, massive amounts of exercise, early childbearing and lots of it, and chemical cocktails that shut down ovulation (and thus the production of estrogen).

However, even the best of the experts can be vague. “Talk with your daughter — communicate!” goes only so far. Here are more practical tips that have worked for some of us in the class of 1971:

flower bullet Searching high and low for an activity where our daughters could meet other kids who shared their interests and were not caught up in school infighting. Winners have included an acting class at the Shakespeare Theatre, gymnastics, soccer, and even transferring in sixth grade to an all-girl school.

flower bullet Keeping informed about the infighting and setting limits. Whether our daughters are “popular” or “unpopular,” victims or aggressors, it's up to us to convey the message that women should treat each other with respect. How? The best way to encourage positive friendships seems to be making ourselves available: driving (that's when we hear what's going on), offering our houses for sleep-overs, bringing food to rehearsals, going to school games and plays. As one of my classmates said, “I figure lost sleep now will pay off in peace of mind later.”

flower bullet Thinking through our own principles on sex. For example: Do we think that sexual intimacy before, say, 18, is permissible if the parties are “mature?” Before 16? That everyone should wait until marriage? If not, when? If we want our daughters to ask our opinions, we need to have answers. Another example: Many of us feel strongly that “ 'No' means 'no' ” — that our daughters are entitled to say “no” to sex and have their decisions be respected. It's harder to acknowledge that the flip side of that is “ 'Yes' means 'yes' ” — that our daughters should not rely on a Prince Charming to make their decisions by seducing them.

flower bullet Once we've decided, enunciating our principles early. If menarche can start at 8.5 years of age, our daughters need good information before then, hard as it is to convey. (Discussions of heavy topics seem to go best in the car, on the telephone, or in the dark at bedtime: anywhere the potential for intimidation via eye-contact is minimized.) Meanwhile, the popular culture rocks on. We try to keep up with the magazines (Seventeen, YM, et al.) and the songs, point out double messages (e.g., those created by juxtaposition of text and advertisement), and censor when appropriate.

flower bullet Thinking aloud and playing “What would happen if ...?” We try to discuss our own everyday decisions (“Who should we pick up first for car pool?”), the choices faced by characters in movies, television shows, and plays, and even choices faced by our own acquaintances and colleagues (if we can do so without being indiscreet). It helps our daughters learn to strategize, negotiate, and make choices. (It also helps us gradually turn decision-making responsibility over to them.)

flower bullet Being up front about our feminism. Preteen girls think everything that goes wrong in their lives is their own fault. Often it's not. Despite our best efforts, we may be unable to change every eighth-grade algebra teacher who encourages the boys to call out answers while telling the girls to pipe down —but we can let our daughters see us work for change, and let them know when a problem is with the system and not them.

flower bullet Finding helpful things for them to read. Some that have worked: the novel Allegra Maud Goldman by Edith Konecky and alternative teen magazines such as New Moon.

flower bullet And — one of the most important — finding others with whom to share insights and strategies. We all need fellow parents who share our values and approaches. Having trouble finding them in your school or neighborhood? Try Reunion!

Ashley Doherty '71 is Assistant General Counsel for the FDIC in Washington, D.C.

1 For references documenting these statistics, please contact the Editor.

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Askable Parents, Teachable Moments

By Anna Forbes, M.S.S. '92

The American Social Health Association (ASHA) recently surveyed 552 parents on their views about sex education. The majority said they had learned about sex from peers, in school, or considered themselves “self-taught.” Most also said that children should learn about sex primarily from parents or in school, rather than from peers.

Despite this belief, only 11 percent of the teens ASHA surveyed last year reported getting the majority of their information about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) from their parents or other family members.

Those whose children fall in the remaining 89% often wish they knew when and how to talk about sex with their kids. Parents of preteen girls usually get concerned as the onset of menstruation approaches. While early, it is not uncommon for a first period to occur around age 10; for this reason, experts advise parents to start discussing menstruation with girls between the ages of 8 and 9. Boys' sexual maturity usually occurs around age 14.

Children are bombarded with explicit messages about sex every day. The name of their educator is “TV.” A 1991 survey revealed that most kids spend more hours watching television than they do in school. During prime time, they see an average of 10 incidents of sexual behavior per hour. Twenty-five such incidents are shown for every instance of protective behavior, a public service message, or even a passing comment about STDs or unintended pregnancy.

The risks children face have also changed. The United States has a higher rate of curable STDs than any other developed country. Three million new cases (one quarter of the total) are diagnosed annually among adolescents. Over half (56 percent) of all young American women and 73 percent of young men have had intercourse by age 18. One fifth of these sexually active young women become pregnant between the ages of 15 and 19.

One out of every four new HIV infections in the United States are among young people between the ages of 13 and 20. The White House's National AIDS Policy Office last year reported that “two Americans under the age of 20 become infected with HIV every hour of every day” and noted that this figure is growing as the epidemic spreads into suburban and rural areas.

In most European countries, young people have equivalent rates of sexual activity but a fraction of the STD, HIV and adolescent pregnancy rates of their U.S. counterparts. According to social scientists, this is largely the result of taking a pragmatic rather than moralistic approach to sex education. Several studies, including one conducted by the World Health Organization in 1992, demonstrate that candid, public sex education leads to safer adolescent sexual behaviors and more responsible attitudes toward sex and relationships. A 1993 study in the United States underscored this further. In it, teens who discussed sex with their parents were shown to be more likely to delay intercourse and, among those already sexually active, to use condoms consistently, have fewer partners and avoid accidental pregnancy.

The benefits of “normalizing” sex education are obvious, but how do we access them? Some of us advocate to local school boards for comprehensive public health and sex education in schools. Some of us regulate what, and how much, television our kids watch. The most immediately accessible route, however, is just to start talking with children at an early age about sex. This is the most effective and the most under-utilized method of making a difference in their future sexual and risk-taking behaviors.

The first thing kids need to know from their parents is whether or not they are “askable.” Like everything else they need to know about us, they deduce this by observation and by testing. According to the ASHA survey, most of us wish that we'd had calm, off-hand, factual conversations about sexual health issues with our parents. This can make it difficult to know how to break the silence with our own kids.

But here again, television enters the equation. For all its faults and blessings, TV provides parents with a myriad of what Planned Parenthood calls “teachable moments.” When a steamy sex scene comes on during family viewing, the silence in the room can be deafening. But it can also be broken. “She hasn't known that guy for very long,” you might say during the commercial. “I'm not so sure it's a good idea for her to be going to bed with him. What do you think?”

If you've never said anything like this to your son or daughter (or niece, partner's child or whomever), you may feel awkward. It's OK to feel that — even OK to say so. The more honest we are with children about our feelings, values and knowledge (or lack thereof), the more honest they will be with us.

And, the more we listen to our children, the more they will listen to us. Asking open-ended questions helps to establish trust and enables you to find out what your child needs to know. “How do you feel about that? What have you heard about that? What do you think she/he should do? What else do you want to know?” — these are almost impossible to overuse.

We endanger children when we allow embarrassment to silence us, political agendas to mute our schools' sex education programs, and television, together with other forms of popular media, to serve as the primary source of sex education.

Anna Forbes, M.S.S. '92, who was profiled in our Winter 1993 issue on AIDS, is a widely respected activist. A co-founder of ActionAIDS in Pennsylvania, she has worked with many Philadelphia and community-based organizations. She is currently a freelance consultant on AIDS and women's health policy. See our review of
her recent series of books for children about AIDS.

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