Lady comes into the library the other night, looks me straight in the eye, and says, "Where are your books on puberty? For boys." Now, I don't want to generalize, but that request, delivered with that demeanor? Single mom. Single mom who has had it up to here with B.O., secretive behavior, and shifty, monosyllabic attitude. I have so much, much respect for single moms. Every single mom should be issued a cape and tights, because they are all superheroes. Single dads too, of course. It is all on them.
Fortunately for this single mom, who I am calling SuperSingleMom, I have made something of a study of puberty books, especially puberty books for boys. In a lot of families, and certainly in single-mom families, it's mom who handles the Big Talks, and therefore girls are guaranteed a certain amount of information, instruction, and genuine commiseration when the time comes.
It falls to Dad, of course, or to the most dad-like person around, to do the puberty talk with Sonny Jim. We moms just do not have applicable firsthand experience. Now, I do not know how this goes in most families, but SuperSingleMom was frustrated with her estranged husband's reluctance to bring up the subject with their 11-year-old son. And I have to say I am dreading the day my culturally Catholic husband has to acknowledge our sons as sexual beings.
But I'm sure as hell not going to do it.
Ergo, the following situation:
A few months after I created my first Opening Day collection for a K-4 school library, the school's reading specialist identified a couple weak spots in the collection. I didn't have enough WWII, she said, and she could use more poetry and folk tales. Most of all, though, she was desperately in need of puberty. She had kids coming in thinking they were DYING because they hadn't been adequately informed of what to expect. So I dutifully sat down with a stack of puberty books and gave them the gimlet eye.
And they all covered anatomy, hygiene, and physical changes just fine. Some had better illustrations, some were funnier than others. Most managed to be nonjudgmental about sexual activity, although all of them emphasized that it was not to be undertaken lightly, and possible consequences (STDs, pregnancy) were explained in each. "Waiting to have sex is a good decision," is what one book says, and I don't think there's any challenging that statement.
The two topics I was on the lookout for, however, were: arousal and pleasure. If Cherished Daughter gets her period for the first time in church on Easter Sunday during the longest sermon ever delivered (for example), she's gonna be upset. But it is likely that she has at least been warned about her period (if she immediately associates it with the wrath of Jesus because she's a lapsed Unitarian, that's purely a personal issue) (again, um, just an example). The surprise boner in the doctor's office, though - that's got to be at least as upsetting, possibly even scarring, and did anyone think to warn Our Hero that something like that might happen?
Boys and girls need the same heads' up about the strong feelings and urges that they will begin to experience as they mature.
And look at that - "feelings" "urges" and "as they mature". Even I turn into an early-70's health class filmstrip the minute I try to discuss the subject. Thank god, I say - THANK GOD for these books.
The Lynda Madaras is the standard bearer. Every time I skim through that thing I learn something. Boys should read it. Grown men should read it. Grown women, if they are mothers of boys, or partnered with men, should read it. It's a good one to have around the house, so that any member of the family may, surreptitiously if need be, consult it as questions arise (pun intended).
The Guy Book is snappier in design, delivering its words of wisdom in bite-sized pieces. The automotive metaphor gets stretched absolutely to the breaking point, though. Although that may make this book more comfortable to teens. A certain amount of "Ugh, grownups are such idiots" may be a solid branch to cling to when reading about pubic hair and group masturbation.
Which: quick aside - all three of these books address. Yes, Young Man, you are not automatically gay, and certainly not an irredeemable perv if you have had meat-beating contests with your pals.
My Changing Body offers encyclopedic sections on birth control and pregnancy, and excellent, clinically-based advice and information about relationships. This book seems to tackle the emotional life of teens more than the other two. Pretty dense, though. And it's a shame about that cover.
Two more books to consider:
If you can find it, Let's Talk About S-E-X: A Guide for Kids 9 to 12 and Their Parents, which was put out in 2005 by Planned Parenthood, is excellent. Totally straightforward, non-cutesy, but unfortunately illustrated like something Planned Parenthood would put out, you know? It LOOKS like a pamphlet you'd pick up in the doctor's waiting room, and who wants to read those?
You Ought to Know: A Guys Guide to Sex by Bill Kelly is quite a bit shorter and written at a lower reading level than our three headline books. You get the feeling it was written in the desperate hope that if they are put off by the longer books, they will at least read this. The heavy emphasis on abstinence seems to bear me out here. And again with the awful cover!
The fact is, though, each of these books only dedicates a short short section to masturbation. And from what I can tell, it is masturbation that tortures the young men the most. Each book says that unless it keeps you from other pleasurable activities, there is no such thing as too much masturbation. Hm. An old friend of mine tells me that when a lad first discovers masturbation, there are no other pleasurable activities.
The fact is, we should all have an Uncle Andy (from Weeds) in the house:
Partly because he really rocks that vest, but mostly for his healthy, safe, clean tips on waxing the wood, and his assurance that "There's no such thing as polishing the raised scepter of love too much. It reduces stress, it enhances immune function." I love that guy, I really do. I hate the thought of any kid feeling shame or enduring confusion because he is too embarrassed to ask, or doesn't feel he knows a trusted adult who would understand.
Mary Louise Parker is the TV mom of the kid in the above clip, and as it happens, she really is the single mom of a boy (and a girl). Maybe she'll roll Parenthood and Weeds Season two for her son when it's time, or maybe she'll get her TV brother-in-law to come over and deliver that speech in person. But if not, I'm happy to tell her - and you, and my SuperSingleMom, and everyone else - that there are good books out there to pick up the slack.