NEW YORK (AP) — The average onset of puberty is about two years earlier than a generation ago. Well over half of tweens and teens report body image issues. The average age of first exposure to porn is 12 for boys and not much later for girls.
Those are just a few of the takeaways in a new book, “this is so awkward,” aptly lowercased and titled to break down all things puberty for today’s parents.
The book, out this week from Rodale, is written by pediatrician Cara Natterson, whose “Care & Keeping of You” series has sold more than 7 million copies, and Vanessa Kroll Bennett, a puberty educator and Natterson’s co-host of “The Puberty Podcast.” Collectively, they have six kids ranging from 13 to 20.
Here’s our interview with Natterson and Kroll Bennett. It has been edited for length and clarity.
AP: Parents today have vast resources available to them. Why is this a moment for a good old-fashioned parenting book?
NATTERSON: To cut through the noise, frankly. The resources are so vast and it’s so unclear what is reliable that we felt it was really important to write something that took data and science and expertise and packaged it into a relatable, readable format.
KROLL BENNETT: And we’ve also seen that it’s not just parents who want this information. It’s educators, it’s coaches and mentors and health care providers. They need the same science and the same guidance as parents do.
AP: One of the things that really struck me about the book is the often inconclusive state of science on puberty, leaving parents to suss out the truth for themselves.
NATTERSON: One of the biggest ways it is inconclusive is the why behind puberty starting earlier. We’ve known for more than a decade that the average age for girls to enter puberty is between 8 and 9, and for boys it’s between 9 and 10. What is hard to wrap our brains around, and the science is not there yet, is the lowest common denominator of what’s causing it.
We know that there are endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the world that we put into and onto our bodies. That’s probably playing a role. We know that stress, which causes a cortisol response, is probably playing a role. We know that antibiotics are probably playing a role.
AP: In addition to the science, the book also provides parenting advice. How has that advice changed in recent years? I know it’s changed in terms of generations, but how has it changed in, say, the last 10 years?
KROLL BENNETT: The role of technology in kids’ lives has upended the advice in the most dramatic way. Technology touches every part of their lives, but we don’t know exactly what the impact is on them. So issues of sleep, issues of self-esteem, issues of body image. Those come up a lot. And porn. Access to technology means access to online pornography that is free, violent and misogynistic.
AP: How do parents get on the same page with their kids in terms of language and vocabulary, such as what hookup actually means or what a situationship is?
NATTERSON: One way is to use anatomically correct language so we’re all talking about the same body part. That also happens to protect kids against predators. A second way is to ask the kids in your life what words mean. I mean, I do it every day. Language evolves, and kids have a shorthand for how they talk about certain social and relational, emotional experiences. They have a shorthand for their bodies as well. The shorthand is important to know.
KROLL BENNETT: And by the way, they don’t always agree on the meanings themselves. Even the word sex. So sex can mean vaginal-penile intercourse. It can mean oral sex, anal sex. Our generation thinks of sex as one version, but kids these days think of it as a number of different things. Adults are imprecise with their language and don’t get far enough down the path of having kids define what it is to them and how they perceive it.
AP: Another key takeaway is the idea of parents taking do-overs, admitting that they’ve made mistakes and want to rectify them. Is that really hard for parents to do?
KROLL BENNETT: As my mom said, the book helped her realize all the ways she messed up in raising four children. Yeah, it’s hard to take a do-over because we want to have authority and we want to demand respect from our kids. And it feels like if we admit having made a mistake, if we apologize to them, somehow we are going to lower our view of ourselves in our kids’ eyes.
And yet the exact opposite is true. By admitting mistakes, by apologizing, by trying again, we are actually raising our esteem in our kids’ eyes because it makes us human. It shows that we’re fallible and it helps connect them to us rather than distance us from them.
NATTERSON: It’s also just such an important tactic in life in general to constantly assess and reassess where you are, how you’re making decisions and then pivot when necessary. And all we’re adding into that is a little verbal acknowledgment when you pivot: I’m trying this a different way.
KROLL BENNETT: Our culture is changing so rapidly. We’re going to get stuff wrong. We’re going to get the language wrong, we’re going to get definitions wrong, we’re going to get our approach wrong because society changes and our kids are changing. What worked for them six months ago may not work for them now. And we have to be flexible. Part of being flexible is taking do-overs.
AP: How is the podcast going?
KROLL BENNETT: We’re in season three. We have tens of thousands of downloads every single week. What that tells us is people are hungry for this information. They are desperate to hear expert voices, to get practical guidance, to understand evolving data and science. People assume nobody wants to talk about it. It’s not true. People want to understand this, and they just want relatable, empathetic voices to help them through the journey.
NATTERSON: And I just want to add that 25% of our listenership is male, which is a very surprising number. No one expected the men in kids’ lives to want to gather this information. They want it. They love it. They email us, they DM us. They are very highly engaged. It’s a stereotype that is unfair and needs to be said. These men want to know.
AP: What role does social media play in kids’ development?
NATTERSON: There is a long list of negative impacts. Body image driving eating disorders is probably the most salient example. But Vanessa and I are careful not to fully demonize social media. Alongside the negatives there is community, especially for marginalized kids like kids who identify as LGBTQ+. They talk about how social media provides community that they could never find in person. And a lot of kids will talk about how these groups will pull them out of a depression, will minimize their anxiety.
So there are drivers that are increasing depression and anxiety on social media and there are drivers that are decreasing it. And this is where the complication sits. This is a perfect opportunity for a do-over because controlling our kids’ social media feels so big and it feels so hard. Don’t look on your own phone — the algorithm is going to point you to very different places. Ask your kid, let me take a look at your phone. Let’s just see what’s on your TikTok for You page. Let’s look at your Instagram feed, and then you can start to have a conversation together about what pops up. No shame, no judgment, no anger. You’re just opening a conversation.
AP: What are some of the biggest myths about puberty that persist today?
KROLL BENNETT: One myth is that boys don’t struggle with body image issues. We know that boys make up 50% of kids struggling with body image issues. It’s not necessarily about getting skinny or losing weight. It might be bulking up, it might be getting more muscular. It might be getting ‘healthy’ but doing things that are not so healthy in order to get there.
NATTERSON: I’ll add one more myth, which is that when you enter puberty, you become a sexual being instantaneously. No. All of this takes time, but the world tends to sexualize kids who look more adult. Unfortunately, kids’ bodies are changing younger and younger so we see an increasing sexualization of younger and younger kids through the lens of the rest of the world.