The birds and bees and all that - FamilyEducation

The birds and bees and all that

May 18,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

L. has less than two weeks of school left. Less than two weeks of ELEMENTARY school left. The end-of-grade tests are more or less behind us, and I'm sure no new material will be introduced in the classes this week or next. As I drove L. to school on Monday I thought out loud about what they would be doing this week. We've found it helpful to verbally structure L.'s day for him ahead of time, even if loosely--much the way I like to verbalize (mentally) my own day to myself when I'm in the shower.

"I wonder what you'll be doing this week," I said, as we pulled into the parking lot.  L. He didn't know. We hypothesized some things, and then I walked him to the door. When I picked him up at 3:00 later that day I walked into the school building to check on some things and noticed that the atmosphere in the hallways seemed unusually loud and animated. Groups of 5th grade boys were laughing and whispering, and the girls seemed to be walking around with their heads held high, and a mysterious, slightly uncomfortable air about them.

"Let's get OUT of here," was the first thing L. said to me, as he tore out of the classroom, backpack flapping open. He couldn't get out of the building fast enough. That was when I remembered what the kids will be working on this week: Human Growth and Development.

Human Growth and Development, if you are not the parent of a soon-to-be middle-schooler, is the fancy set of words for a unit designed to teach rising sixth-graders about boy and girl parts and puberty and all the wonderful changes to these various interesting anatomical parts that come with it. At L.'s school--and I'm sure they do this everywhere--they divide the kids into classes based on gender: one class for girls, one for boys. The class for girls is taught by a female teacher, and the class for boys taught by a male. I don't know what would happen at schools where there was no male 5th grade teacher--perhaps recruit and train some other male teacher in the building to lead that particular class. I'm not too sure how I feel about dividing the classes by gender, because I do think it's important for boys to understand about girls' anatomy and girls to understand about what goes on with boys. Knowledge is, after all, power, and understanding how the body of the opposite gender works can only foster more empathy, understanding and, hopefully, compassion--not to mention ward off the possibility for life-changing mistakes due to ignorance about how it all works. However, after walking down the school hallway and hearing L. retell bits and pieces about the lessons, I do think splitting the classes into gendered groups serves the purpose of sparing the girls from the tittering (yes, boys can titter) reactions from their male peers.

When I previewed the material for the unit I didn't see anything too out of the ordinary. There were illustrations of anatomy, but nothing L. hadn't already seen in his visual dictionary, or in the book we purchased for him at the end of last summer. The problem we're finding this week is that the Human Growth and Development unit is giving some kids carte blanche to spend recess and lunch discussing what they think they "know" about the topic and, believe me, some of them just don't have all the facts. Or they have them, but like that telephone party game, the information came in right, but exited in extraordinarily altered form.

We're still feeling our way through the questions L. has sent our way this week--with more to come, I'm sure. If you're worried about The Talk or your child is approaching middle school, and/or puberty here is some advice we've used so far--some of it comes from good friends and parents, and other advice from books and that old standby--mother's/father's intuition.

--First off, make it clear to your child that he/she should come to you first with questions. Relying on peers for information on these topics can make for some confusing (and interesting) impressions of what it's all about. For instance, I remember clearly how in 7th grade a girl in the recess line told me that getting your period happened when a girl woke up the next day and found that she had suddenly--overnight!--grown breasts. Needless to say, I spent a long time wondering/worrying about that. We had to remind L. of the importance of coming to us when he came home with some interesting information on Monday afternoon.

--Be frank and casual when your child asks questions that make you squirm. I know this sounds easier than it actually is but remember, you can be shouting la-la-la-la-la-la and covering your ears up on the inside, you just need to make sure your child thinks you're calm and casual about it all on the outside. Try and stick with the real, no-nonsense names and descriptions of things without resorting to the cutsie names that are designed to just make adults feel better.

--If there's a younger sibling at home, make sure you make it clear to your older child that talking about all this is a privilege you earn when you are older. T. hasn't asked any questions related to any of this, and we'd prefer to wait until she expresses her own interest in learning more before we go down that road (one kid at a time, please).

--Consider starting a privacy notebook with your child. As I wrote in the post I linked to here, we started one with L. last year,  but kept it to other issues. L. used it pretty extensively this past fall, when he was really struggling with his anxiety and even depression. I talked with him about using it again, in case he had any questions coming from the Human Growth and Development unit that he was too embarrased to ask face-to-face. I have to say, though, that L. is pretty blunt and unabashed about asking questions so far. It could be because of his AS, or because he feels wholly comfortable talking to us, or a combination of both. I already have a feeling that T. might stumble a little more over all this--she tends to be pretty private about her inner thoughts/questions where her body is concerned--refusing, sometimes, to even talk about not feeling well.

--Fifth grade IS an okay time to start talking about all this. I used to think that it was shocking for schools to cover some of this material when the kids were only the tender age of ten or eleven. But as a parent of a rising middle-schooler, I have realized that ten is not too early and that it's important for kids this age to learn about their bodies, and how they function. It's far better that they learn the information in a safe and protected (and controlled) environment then the other potentially harmful and scary ways that are out there.

 And, chime in with your own advice here, please! I know I need all the advice I can get...