Boys are going through puberty earlier–dads, we need your help!

The news came out this week that boys are going through puberty earlier.

Dads, pay attention.

In 1969, the average boy started going through puberty when he was 11.6 years old. According to the study just released, the average has gone down significantly. It differs by race: for white boys it’s 10.14 years, in Hispanics it’s 10.4 years—and in African-Americans, it’s 9.14 years. And those are ages for getting pubic hair—growth of the testicles, the very first sign of puberty, starts even earlier. 

It’s not really a surprise—all of us practicing pediatricians have been seeing it in our offices. And a previous study showed that girls were going through puberty earlier, so it makes sense that boys would too. We don’t know exactly why it’s happening, although obesity is probably a big factor, as obesity changes the hormonal balance and makes early puberty more likely. There may be environmental exposures that are contributing too (contrary to what some people think, it’s not the hormones in milk—the bovine growth hormone doesn’t affect humans, and there’s not enough of other hormones to cause trouble).

But it’s a problem. The hormones of puberty affect the brain, too, as any parent of a teenager will tell you. They make kids more likely to have sexual feelings, and to engage in risky behaviors. Not such a good or easy thing to have happen to a nine or ten-year-old boy.

And that’s where dads—or dad figures—come in.

I’ve been a pediatrician for more than twenty years, and as my patients enter puberty, I always ask families whether they are talking with their children about it—about body changes and feelings and sex and peer pressure and everything else that goes along with this new and exciting and scary part of life.  When the patient is a girl, the answer is usually yes. When the patient is a boy, it’s usually no.

A lot of it, I think, has to do with the fact that it’s usually mothers who do the talking about puberty. That’s how it works in our culture: we moms talk to our kids about the sensitive, embarrassing stuff. When it comes to girls and puberty, it’s not so hard to do The Talk—after all, we’ve lived it ourselves. And we’ve had the experience (or at least some sort of experience) of someone talking to us about it that we can use to get us started. But when it comes to talking about boys and puberty, it’s a different story. We don’t have the necessary, um, experience.

With lots of great exceptions, dads seem to be less comfortable talking about body changes and sex. When my older son was going through puberty I asked my husband who talked with him about it when he was young; “I’m still waiting for someone to do it,” was his response. I ended up doing the talking—or trying to, as my son was outrageously embarrassed to be talking to his mother about such things, and practically stuck his fingers in his ears. I ended up buying a book and leaving it for him; while he denied looking at it, I could tell by the wear on the book that he had.

It’s less embarrassing to talk to a guy than your mom—and it can be really helpful, and reassuring, to hear about someone’s personal experience, to know that they’ve lived what you’re living and understand how you feel. With boys going through this even earlier, it’s going to be even more important that they have this kind of support.

Dads are really important—not just for easing sons through puberty, but for keeping both sons and daughters out of trouble. Another recent study showed that when dads are more involved with their adolescent children and have a good relationship with them, kids are less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors.

So, dads—or uncles or grandfathers or older brothers, you guys can help too—step up to the plate. Help us moms out when it comes to The Talk—and the ongoing conversations that boys going through puberty need. There are resources out there to help you; the Center for Young Men’s Health has some great materials, as does kidshealth.org and healthychildren.org. There are lots of great books out there, too—visit a bookstore or your local library to find the one that feels best for your son’s age and for your values.

It’s not easy (these conversations can be really awkward, I know)—but you can make all the difference in the life of a young man. And that’s pretty great.