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What Are the Lessons of Early Puberty?

As precocious puberty in girls is on the rise in this country, this mom asks what we can take away from this uncomfortable trend.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about young girls in short shorts and hormone-free cheese. I know the connection isn’t obvious so allow me explain. As the kids in my neighborhood begin to grow up, some of the girls are allowed to dress in ways that I find a bit alarming. One recent example: super-short shorts with midriff baring tops and high-heeled sandals on an 11-year-old.

I’m sure my attention to this matter is increased now that I have two daughters of my own. But even before having kids, when living near a private school while the Britney Spears 'school-girl slut' look was so in, I felt just as protective of those beautiful young ladies in school uniforms who played that role to the hilt. 'They have no idea how much attention they’re attracting from all over the place,' I’d think. 'Nor would they know how to handle what comes along with it'.

But is it fair to expect these young girls to be the ones in charge of making sure others exercise self-control? Or is it possible that men can behave better than this supposes? I think they can. So to me, to always assume that it's up to a female not to attract unwanted attention is just another example of blaming the victim rather than holding everyone responsible for their own actions.

The feminist in me believes these are valid points. The mom in me doesn’t care. I want my girls safe from aggressive sexual attention no matter what, especially until they’re closer to adulthood and have some tools to deal with it.

Enter the cheese. Although there is no direct link between a current rise in early puberty in American girls and hormones in our dairy and meats, as well as exposure to certain chemicals like the BPAs in plastics, the connection seems very likely. Authorities allow that its highly problematic to study the link between environmental agents and precocious puberty because of the ethics of purposely trying to induce its symptoms in actual children, but studies involving animals and accidental human cases of exposure point to a direct connection.

When I asked Dr. Lisa Rood M.D., a pediatrician who practices in Walnut Creek, CA, she said, “I tell my patients there’s enough evidence about these symptoms to indicate that if they can afford hormone-free and/or organic meat and dairy, they should.” The symptoms to which Dr. Rood is referring are early signs of breast budding, hormonal acne, pubic hair, and eventually menstruation. A 2010 study in the journal Pediatrics shows that puberty is hitting American girls earlier and earlier. So that while 10, or 11 used to be the normal age, it isn’t too surprising to find girls going through this process at 8 or 9 now.

This is the stage upon which a recent article in The New York Times caused a good deal of buzz entitled, Puberty Before Age 10, a New ‘Normal’? The piece began with the story of a 9-year-old little girl who had started growing pubic hair at age 6. I have a 5-and-a-half year old daughter so this stopped me in my tracks.

The piece went on to describe all of the issues that come along with early hormonal changes as described by the little girl's mom, “Pubic hair, armpit hair, a few pimples around the nose. Some budding.” It also described the woman’s understandable frustration at stumped doctors who are redefining what’s normal in order to treat this growing number of cases. I can only imagine how hard it would be to go to a doctor for care only to have them decide that what you’re dealing with is just the new normal and send you home with a sympathetic pat on the back.

Meanwhile, there are these little girls with bodies far beyond their years and all the issues this brings up. Medically, this leads to concerns about the ties between bone growth and puberty that may lead girls with precocious puberty to be shorter than they would have otherwise been.

There are also the obvious concerns about being so different than those around you in your peer group. Of course, if early puberty is becoming the new normal, this may not be an issue for long. I’d hope that if this happened to a child of mine, I would encourage her to find ways to be OK with being different, something we all have to face some time or other as we move through adolescence. But I can’t imagine this would be easy.

Finally, there are the concerns of all the unwanted attention early breast and shape development brings on children who may not be able to handle it. The article in The New York Times quotes Frank Biro, lead author of the August 2010 Pediatrics paper and director of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Biro says, “If a girl is 10 and she looks 15, it doesn’t make any difference if her pituitary is turned on or if something else caused her breast growth…She looks like a middle adolescent. People are going to treat her that way. Maybe she’s not interested in reciprocal sex, but she might be pressured into sex nonetheless, and her social skills will be those of a 10-year-old.”

Once again, I think of the neighborhood girls in short shorts. I think about how unfair it is that we can’t just ask other people to monitor their own behaviors and not, say, pressure a 10-year-old to do something so outside her usual tendencies. But in this case, we aren’t even talking about a grown man who lacks self-control, but possibly a teenage boy who, himself, is undergoing strong physical changes he doesn’t yet have any idea how to master.

As parents, we can try to help. It seems our first duty is to see that our kids stay away from the environmental toxins with suspected links to early puberty, as well as keeping clear of childhood obesity—another highly suspected cause. We can also use this as an opportunity to help kids learn that different is not bad and to accept each other for who we are on the inside, as kind and decent friends do.

Finally, in extreme cases, we may have opportunities to help our children understand that it is always the job of the one giving attention to make sure these attentions are appropriate: that the one on the receiving end of such advances is willing and able to actually receive them. This way we come to understand that we are all our brother’s and our sister’s keepers and we are all, absolutely, responsible for our own choices and the actions they bring.

Jeanie Hanson April 13, 2012 at 10:02 PM
Thank you, Abi! I appreciate your article on this subject. My adult daughter, Abbe, was a 'late bloomer' like my mother at age 13, unlike me at 11. Heredity aside, we are all taller than our mothers. However, Abbe was warned by my granddaughter's pediatrician, as your article states, that hormones in meat and dairy will effect early development. I strongly agree with you about dress mode, attitudes and most importantly, the strong parental training of both boys and girls to respect one another and not seek,receive or give attention that is they are not yet prepared to deal with. Friendship and respect thus love are the last things that this current culture encourages to develop as children grow up. It is the role and divine charge of the parents, surrounding family and caring adults to model appropriate behavior and protect against the inappropriate, both physical and psychological.
Motivated Santee Citizen April 14, 2012 at 02:22 AM
I like the way you think Jeanie, but I have to say, good luck with that mentality in Santee. From what I see of most kids and parents in Santee you are beating your head against a wall. Sorry to say it.

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