2008-04-04 / Editorial/Opinion

It's My Turn

Reading, Writing and Puberty
By MaryAnn Keim President, I'm All Girl, Inc.

MaryAnn Keim
MaryAnn Keim, president of I'm All Girl, Inc. (and Boys Too!), a company created and dedicated to helping educate preteens (and their parents) about puberty. She can be reached at mary ann@imallgirl.com or visit her website: www.imallgirl.com.

The latest study is in from the Federal Center of Disease Control and the news is not good: One in four teen girls has a sexually transmitted disease and 40 percent of the girls admitted to being sexually active.

During the reporting of this story Katie Couric remarked that she was stunned to learn that 40 percent of teen girls are sexually active. Katie seems to be sailing down the same river as most parents: De-Nile. Just turn on the T.V. and see what teen girls are watching; it's all about sex - whether it be sex appeal or sex with your boyfriend, the message is the same. Which is nothing new, really. Sex has always been media's bestseller. But in today's world, the media is everywhere - not only are kids watching TV - they're watching 500+ channels. Plus the internet, plus video games, movies, songs…. our children are inundated with sexual images on a daily basis.

"Given that the health effects of STDs for women - from infertility to cervical cancer - are particularly severe, STD screening, vaccination and other prevention strategies for sexually active women are among our highest public health priorities," said Kevin Fenton, Director of the CDC's National Centre for HIV/ AIDS, Viral Heptatis, STD and TB Prevention.

What can we as parents do? If you listen to Merck & Co. and their doctors we should vaccinate teen girls with the 3 dosage of the vaccine "Gladisil" as young as 9. My two girls are only 11 and 13 and I'm hoping I can wait until at least college to consider the vaccination, but if the situation warrants action, I certainly would consider it. I just hate that this vaccine is so new and I worry that side effects will be discovered 10 years from now.

Parents could call on the major studios to become more responsible and cut back on shows such as "The OC," "The Hills" and "Gossip Girls" and demand they bring back "Little House on the Prairie" but, let's face it, that's unrealistic. The fact is, these shows are very popular. One of the top shows of 2007 is a show on MTV called Shot at Love with Tila Tequila". It's so popular that they are going to do Part 2. This reality show focuses on a girl who can't make up her mind about her sexuality, so boys and girls compete to be her love. It has a huge audience and made lots of money. So what if the content was repulsive and idiotic. The kids love it.

Most public schools have STD awareness and teachers and administrators are trained on AIDS awareness. Which forces the obvious question: If these children are being taught about STDs and AIDs, why are 1 in 4 teen girls getting these diseases? Could it be because they are not being taught the basics about puberty? As the experts have told us, kids who are given a sound education about their bodies and about puberty are more apt to adhere to safe sex guidelines, make better choices in life and have more meaningful relationships with each other. So why aren't they being taught about it in school?

We as parents can only do so much. We must start talking to our children and open up a dialogue with them so they turn to us with their questions, but if you're anything like me you learned a little here, a little there. It was only recently, while helping my colleague, Arlyn Kelly, research the material for our "Changing and Growing" Seminar, that I learned the most about puberty for both boys and girls. There are many different facets of puberty. Arlyn is a Nurse Practitioner with a master's degree. She has taught nursing at both NYU and Kingsborough and during her research even she found information about puberty that she didn't previously know. How, as parents, are we supposed to have all the knowledge?

Don't get me wrong - puberty is part of the NYC DOE's health education curriculum, but the children are not separated into two groups by gender. Think about it: How can you teach children about their bodies in a mixed class? Do you really think they will raise their hands and ask a question? And believe me, they have questions. In the past year Arlyn and I have done several Changing and Growing Seminars for children in Grades 5 through 7. The seminar runs for about 2 hours and a good part of that is answering questions.

As sex education expert Nora Gelperin said, "Sexuality is still a very taboo subject in our society. Teens tell us they can't make decisions in the dark and that adults aren't properly preparing them to make responsible decisions."

The abstinence program is not working (1.5 billion dollars later). Let's try knowledge instead. In an article dated March 11, 2008, the Associated Press quotes an adolescent-health specialist as saying "Blame is most often placed on inadequate sex education, from parents and from schools focusing too much on abstinence-only programs. Add to that a young person's sense of being invulnerable."

Teaching about puberty is just as important as teaching reading and writing. We educate children so they can become productive members of society. What happens to kids who get pregnant? They drop out of school and become a burden on society. (Remember, pregnancy among teens is at a 10 year high.) What happens if they get sick, they drop out of school and become a burden on society (1 in 4 teen girls in the U.S. is infected with at least one sexually transmitted disease, according to the new research)? So why aren't we educating them about puberty?

As parents, we must start demanding that our schools implement a true sex education program - one that includes a thorough understanding of puberty in an environment conducive to learning. Classes must be separated by gender and taught from as early as the fifth grade, using materials that are age appropriate.

Education, as always, is the key. Our kids need and deserve it. We need to demand it.

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