Toronto Star

July 14, 2000


Getting older younger

Girls today may develop breasts early but they remain child-like in many ways

By Janice Turner
Toronto Star Life Writer

``The girls in my daughter's class are so big! I'm mean they're practically women,'' observes a fortysomething woman during a recent curbside conversation.

Practically women?

Hardly. We're talking about 9-, 10- and 11-year-old girls.

The truth is that girls are larger and taller today than they were a couple of generations ago. Credit more calories and, generally, better nutrition. But early physical development shouldn't be confused with emotional maturity or sexual appetite.

``I think kids get a lot of messages about what they should be interested in and then they become interested in it,'' says Pat Jamieson, a supervisor at Kids Help Phone.

``Do physical changes make them more susceptible to these messages? I don't know.''

Certainly girls of 10 and 11 are calling the help line with questions about dating and appearance.

Many of them talk about having boyfriends.

``But after you explore the meaning of the term, you often find out that they mean someone they have been admiring from afar,'' notes Jamieson.

``They'll talk about their `relationship' and use all the right language, but clearly they're getting a lot of their information from television. Kids take this stuff to heart and get direction from it.''

Kids are getting older younger, agrees Miriam Kaufman of the Hospital for Sick Children's teen clinic. But it's much more cultural than biological.

And when it seems as though a youngster has all but blossomed before your eyes, it just might be she's sporting a push-up or padded bra.

Clearly, there's nothing new about children wanting to be older than they are or having vivid imaginations.

But it doesn't mean that pre-teen girls with budding breasts and padded hips are any more sophisticated than their yet-to-develop classmates. Indeed, girls who have entered puberty early need as much, if not more, understanding from their teachers, parents and siblings.

Girls with bustlines often get teased mercilessly. Some will enjoy the attention and may become flirtatious and more. Most, however, would prefer the focus was on someone else, says Kim Martyn, a sexual health educator with the City of Toronto for 14 years.

``People may start treating a girl differently and assuming that she has sexual interests when they might not be there,'' Martyn says.

``I've seen girls of 8 or 9 who aren't developed at all and who are very intent on girl-boy things.''

Boys, on the other hand, get increased status when they develop early because they're bigger, their voices are deeper and they have more hair than many of their classmates.

An estimated 15 per cent of white girls in the United States begin to develop sexually by age 8, as do almost half of black girls, according to a 1997 study of 17,000 participants. The reasons for the racial disparity aren't clear.

Breast development was notable, on the average, before age 10 in white girls, and before age 9 in black girls. Usually, growth of pubic hair occurred a year later. Significantly, even by age 7, some 27 per cent of black girls and nearly 7 per cent of white girls had begun to develop breasts, pubic hair or both.

These days, a girl's first period arrives, on the average, at about age 12 1/2, down from age 14 a century ago. Still, that means more girls than ever are starting to menstruate at age 9, 10 and 11 (about 62 per cent of black girls and 35 per cent of white girls).

``Talking about human sexuality needs to happen earlier than it has been happening,'' Martyn says.

Girls need to learn about menstruation by at least age 8. It's best not to try to cover it off in one heavy-duty talk. Rather, the topic should be discussed over time.

Boys need to know about it as well. They need to know that menstrual periods are a result of girls' changing bodies and that jokes can be hurtful and disrespectful.

``Lots and lots of parents have a hard time getting their heads around the fact that their children are growing quickly and their friends are growing quickly,'' Martyn says. ``But by age 8, children need some basic understanding of reproduction. What's a period about if you don't understand growth and development and the union of sperm and egg?''

Professionally it can be challenging, she notes, to field questions from older students who have yet to get the basics. Many of the same ones who will talk about explicit adult sexual behaviour will have no idea what's happening to their own bodies.

A girl who gets her period is on her way to being a woman, but she isn't there just yet, Martyn cautions. Adulthood is determined not just by growth and hormones, but by knowledge and life experience.

Some days she'll resemble a young woman; other days she'll act like a young girl, concurs Jamieson.

``My best advice is to take your cue from her,'' Jamieson says. ``Let her know that you know this is a tough time for her and try not to react to her changing emotions very much.''

Maturing girls still need lots of guidance, someone who will listen to their concerns and offer plenty of affection.

``Parents tend to back off in terms of physical contact,'' says Kaufman. ``They may not hug them as much.''

And they should.

``It's important to work with girls, generally, to make them feel okay about their bodies,'' Martyn stresses.

``Don't assume because you had your period at 12, your daughter is going to have it at the same time. She may get it earlier, or later. Sex education is a parent's job. Don't wait until your child is 12 or 13, because clearly that's too late.''

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