As parents, we know that this moment is coming.
In fact, I remember joking about it in the delivery room, staring into the adoring eyes of my eldest as I held her in one hand. Now, nine and a half years later, that moment has arrived.
She’s noticed her body changing and the bodies of her friends. Her mother has also attempted to impose a preparedness kit on me, that consists of chocolates and cuddles. Niceties aside, I recognised that a growing young woman would need facts.
Puberty can be terrifying if you don’t know it’s coming. There’s a world of changes that will take place over the space of a decade, without warning; I wasn’t going to leave her unprepared.
At her age, change is not impossible; the process of puberty has been reported in children as young as eight, with girls being notoriously early developers. As a woman, I had asked her mum to discuss menstruation with her but was left disappointed by her efforts.
I’m neither inarticulate, nor shy, but I needed help on this one.
I hit the keyboard, or in this case the phone browser in search if child friendly reference material.
As luck would have it, a friend of mine had recommended a really good book, but I decided to do a quick check of what was out there. Amazon didn’t disappoint.
The trick here is not to be sucked in by well illustrated covers, but to read the reviews from verified purchases. Not to put too much emphasis on this but this is one conversation that as a parent, you can’t afford to mess up.
Not surprisingly, there is quite a range of advisory material for puberty. Some aimed at parents to guide conversations and some written specifically for children. The book that my friend had recommended appeared to fall into the latter category and ticked all the boxes according to the reviews. Changing bodies, menstruation, attraction, moods and even sex. I clicked one copy into my basket.
Approaching my weekend, I picked the cubs up from after-school club on Thursday. As is the norm, the floodgates of information and questions opens. This evening, she is full of questions.
‘Dad, I’ve been doing a lot of learning about bodies and how they change. What’s sex? and do you have to have it?’
Before I could answer, she continues.
‘Mummy was talking to me about periods and all of it and some of the girls at school have been talking about sex’
Ok; well what have they been saying?
Let me just get this out there; I think that there are very few conversations that you shouldn’t have with your children; done in the correct way, most information can be handled sensitively but informatively, without inducing fear nor wonder. Kids are sponges; they’re nourished by information and in this digital epoch, there are a lot of places that they can get it.
What I heard next both scared and angered me.
‘Well my friends haven’t said anything really but when mummy was talking about periods I asked her about sex’
Ok; so what did mummy say?
‘Well she was busy so she just walked away, so I waited until night time, when I couldn’t sleep and I looked up sex on my tablet [PC]’
I almost crashed. I had asked my ex to set up an age appropriate account on all of her devices, following a similar incident last year. I also asked her to restrict browser settings to ‘Safe Search’, which would limit access to inappropriate material. I doubted that either had been done and what I was told next confirmed this.
‘Loads of scary things came up that I didn’t understand and it really scared me! I turned it off! do you have to have sex daddy??’
I suppressed my rising ire and took a few seconds to think. The irresponsibilities of my ex would have to wait for now; this was the time for damage control.
Sweetheart, sex is nothing to worry about and more importantly you don’t have to think about it for a long time yet. You really must be careful when you use the internet and the things that you saw were not meant for you; try not to think about them.
‘Can we remove Chrome from my tablet?’
I don’t think that’s necessary, but when you come back to mine from mummy’s bring it with you and daddy will make sure that you can’t see things that you’re not supposed to. Now, when we get home, I have a present for you that will help to answer all your questions and then we can have a talk.
Fortuitously, the book had arrived the day before. Some of the reviews had stated that the depiction of sex within it may have been better left to older children. With this in mind, I had wondered if I should sit on it until her tenth birthday. Now, I feel that decision had been taken out of my hands.
At home, she tore at the protective wrapper eagerly.
What’s Happening to Me? (Girls Edition) (Facts of Life) by Susan Meredith sat in her hands.
‘Thanks Dad! two of my friends at school have this book!’
Double confirmation that now was the right time for this. Having skimmed through it and rewrapped it for her, I gave her the options of reading it herself or us going through it together.
She chose the former, telling me that she would read it before bed tonight. In fact, she went from cover to cover in about 45 minutes. She ran up to me and gave me a big hug.
Do you have any questions?
‘Yes; lots; but can we read it together over the next few nights?’
His bedtime is 7pm; hers is 8pm, but the rule is that she fills that hour creatively. She usually reads, but is not averse to origami or sewing. After tucking her brother in and going through our usual, goodnight; sleep tight sing-song, she calls me in.
I read and begin a guided Q&A session. Taking it slowly, we discuss the basic body changes around weight, height, pubic hair and breasts. I use the correct names for body parts, shying away from nicknames and the like. I don’t see the point in learning something twice.
As expected, she takes it all in her stride. We have appropriate levels of laughter but mainly, this is about reassurance; I’m aware that I’m sewing seeds of body confidence that could stay with her for life.
We will spend the next few nights working through the book, including sex and sexuality.
I’ll end on a couple of points. We need to give young minds both the credit and respect they deserve. Handled appropriately, they can handle almost anything as their brains have the elasticity to do so.
My second point is really a warning; please do not allow young minds to wander the internet alone. Their appetite for knowledge can lead them to places they do not know how to get back from and the damage can be everlasting.
They deserve knowledge and protection in equal measure.