The birds and the bees... and the parents

No one agrees on how to teach it, but some say puberty education that includes mom and dad is an opportunity for bonding, communication

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By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / April 26, 2011

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BRIDGEWATER — It was “Mother-Daughter Growth and Development’’ class — a.k.a. Puberty Night — at Williams Intermediate School. On a recent Wednesday evening, fourth- and fifth-grade girls came to school with their mothers to learn about their bodies.

Katherine Forbes-Smith, a nurse practitioner, covered the landscape, from pimples to periods. The reaction was not muted. Some of the girls snickered. Some clung to their mothers or curled up in their laps. There was nothing subtle about one girl’s response: When it came to the part about the reproductive organs, she stuck her fingers in her ears.

“Even if your mom had to drag you here,’’ Forbes-Smith told the girls, whose expressions suggested she’d gotten that right, “in the long run, this is a night you’ll remember.’’

It’s easy to forget linear equations or verb conjugations, but no one forgets puberty class. Yet even though it’s been a staple of middle school education since the days it was referred to as “the birds and bees talk,’’ no one agrees on how to teach it — surprising, perhaps, at a time when so much about public school education is standardized. It’s all up for debate: Should you teach boys and girls together? Use a film to teach the facts? Be explicit or coy?

“Every school system is different,’’ said Kathy Bowen, a parenting coach who spent 20 years as a health education administrator in Concord and Acton.

In many ways, not much has changed about puberty education over the years. “Kids always ask the same questions,’’ Bowen said. Inquiries about how twins are conceived, armpit hair, and penis size are perennials, teachers say. Kids still get squirmy and embarrassed at the sight of anatomical diagrams.

And although many of today’s adolescents are glutted with sexual messages on their computers and TV, they are still “extremely naive about how anatomy and physiology work,’’ said Megara Bell, director of Partners in Sex Education, which provides sex education classes for schools in Greater Boston. The five-day puberty-related curriculum for fifth-graders covers reproductive and sexual anatomy, physical and emotional changes, healthy relationships, and sex in the media.

“They know odd facts about esoteric sexual practices but still don’t have the basics of puberty,’’ said Bell, who invites student to submit anonymous questions on index cards. They’ve included: “If I have had my period for like two months, will I grow more?’’; “Why are boys attracted to boobs?’’; and “Do you run out of sperm?’’

“Can you die if puberty doesn’t happen?’’ one boy asked Dr. Fred Kern, a pediatrician who spoke to boys and their fathers the next night.

The state issues broad guidelines for teaching health in public schools — the “Comprehensive Health Curriculum Framework’’ was adopted by the Board of Education in 1999. It states that “students will learn the basic characteristics of physical growth and development, including body functions and systems through the life cycle.’’

But it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Some schools integrate into a longer curriculum, while others have one-off puberty class. Some schools give the job to the school nurse, the science teacher, or the health teacher. Some leave it up to the classroom teacher, because they’re the ones who know the kids best. Some use outside experts, because they’re not the ones who know the kids best.

“I’m not their regular teacher so they don’t have to worry about feeling embarrassed or that they’re asking silly questions,’’ said Bell. “I’m not an authority figure, I’m a source of information.’’

Some schools use a video as an ice-breaker. At Williams Intermediate School, students from Bridgewater and Raynham watched “Growing Up for Girls!’’ a 1995 video strong on factual information, if low on production values: The narrator, implausibly, is a radio DJ and expert on all things reproductive. She talks about body changes, sexual organs, menstruation, hygiene, and ovulation, but stops conspicuously short of the act itself. (“When a man’s sperm and a woman’s egg join, they produce a fertilized egg, which can develop and grow into a baby.’’ )

Then there’s the question of whether boys and girls should hear The Talk together or separately. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus.

“We have this debate all the time with schools,’’ said Jen Slonaker, vice president of education and training for Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, which developed a sexuality education curriculum for middle schools called “Get Real.’’ It covers anatomy and reproduction, relationships, emotional and physical changes, and abstinence, among other topics.

“We advocate they take the lessons together. When they’re in a room together, hearing the experiences of one another, that’s a huge opportunity for perspective-taking,’’ Slonaker said.

“If you separate people by gender to talk about sex and sexuality, the message we are getting is that it’s so taboo you cannot talk about these issues in front of the opposite sex,’’ Bell said.

Lexington elementary schools seem to take a middle position. Boys watch the boys’ video and girls watch a girls’ video, and in a second class they switch. In some schools, boys and girls come together for a third lesson. “We want the students to see it’s OK to talk to each other about these things,’’ said Jennifer Wolfrum, assistant coordinator of physical education and wellness for Lexington’s public schools.

Not many schools seem to take the approach at Bridgewater, where students are accompanied by their mothers and fathers. Some fathers showed up that evening looking as though they’d rather be working an extra shift than sitting through Puberty Night, but pediatrician Kern maintains that the event provides a unique bonding opportunity for fathers and sons.

“It gives the boys a message that, ‘I’m willing to talk to you about anything, and I’ll always be there for you, and you can always use me as a sounding board when life gets tough and challenging,’ ’’ he said.

At first it seemed as though no one but the upbeat Dr. Kern was willing to do any talking.

“Any brave boys out there who want to ask the first question?’’ he said. No brave boys responded.

“Any brave souls?’’ he said, trying again, before reading a question a boy had submitted on an index card.

“ ‘How long does puberty take?’ ’’ he read. “That’s a very good question. It can be two to three years, and the process can take up to five years.’’

More questions followed.

“Why are the feet getting bigger and the arms getting longer?’’ (“That’s a good question. . .’’) “Here’s a very interesting question,’’ Kern said. “Does puberty take place at daytime or nighttime?’’

Then came a question that gave him momentary pause: “What happens if you make a baby if you don’t want one?’’

He sidestepped this one, deftly segueing into the topic of personal responsibility.

“It’s an interesting question,’’ Dr. Kern told the boys. “You can talk to your dad about it on the way home.’’

Linda Matchan can be reached at