Lisa Jarvis: Florida bill would make puberty even more awkward

Tribune Content Agency

Florida legislators don’t want teachers to talk with kids about racism or being gay. Soon we might be able to add puberty to the list of verboten subjects. The state is considering a bill that would ban elementary school teachers from talking about puberty and menstruation with students, many of whom would already be experiencing those changes firsthand. It’s hard to believe this is America in 2023.

As the mom of a tween girl, I’m constantly amazed by the wealth of resources about periods and puberty on the market these days. While my generation had dog-eared copies of “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” my daughter and her peers are lucky enough to have an entire shelf full of body-positive books.

Newer products like period underwear and swimsuits can ease anxieties as kids navigate their first years of menstruation. Apps designed with tweens and teens in mind can help them learn to keep track of their cycle to reduce surprises. And the concept of period poverty is on the radar not only of young activists, but of corporations like CVS, which last year cut the price on its store-brand tampons, pads, liners and cups to reduce what its CEO called “menstrual inequity.”

In general, U.S. society seems to be finally coming around to the not-so-radical notion that periods, and, more generally, puberty, shouldn’t be treated with secrecy, stigma or shame. This adolescent rite of passage is just that — an inevitable part of growing up that can be eased with knowledge and support.

Unless, of course, you live in Florida. There, legislators are considering a bill that would add periods to its ever-growing list of restricted topics. Republican-backed legislation would bar sex and health education before sixth grade, a bill that its sponsor, Stan McClain, conceded would bar teachers from sharing information about menstruation with anyone younger than the state-sanctioned age.

But as much as Florida’s Republican lawmakers might wish to, they can’t control human biology.

The reality is that many girls get their periods before 12, the age of most sixth graders. And the age of menarche — or first period — is getting younger. In 2020, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of women found that the median age of menarche declined from 12.1 years in 1995 to 11.9 two decades later. In other words, half of all girls had started to menstruate by that age. Theories for the decline include the rise in obesity and exposure to endocrine disruptors in the environment.

The pandemic might have exacerbated that trend: Anecdotal reports from pediatricians, backed up by some early data, point to a rise in early-onset puberty among girls, with more cases of girls age 8 or younger starting menstruation. Doctors speculated that stress, lack of exercise and lockdowns could have been contributing factors.

But even if every child got her period in sixth grade or later, it’s hard for me to understand why legislators would bar talking with younger students about a basic bodily function half of them will experience. Pediatricians recommend talking to children about menstruation well before it happens so that are prepared for the change, with most guides noting that kids can wrap their head around the concept by the age of 6 or 7.

A recent study led by Margaret L. Schmitt found that kids need more, not less education about menstruation. “Many adolescent girls in the U.S.A. are under-prepared to navigate puberty and menstrual health comfortably and confidently,” Schmitt and her co-authors wrote. It’s jarring enough to get that first period, even when it’s on your radar. For an uninformed third or fourth grader, it’s not an exaggeration to say it could be terrifying. Seems like a good recipe for creating shame around something completely normal and inevitable.

Kids benefit from getting accurate information from the adults in their lives — including at school. My own daughter was 8 when she came home from school and asked if I could explain what a period is. After briefly clarifying if we were talking about grammar or biology, her question launched a series of conversations that, in concert with what she learned in school, have given her so much more information about her body than I ever had at her age. All kids deserve to be that empowered about their own health.

Of course, some will argue that parents, not schools, are the appropriate conduit for information about anything to do with bodies, whether that’s teaching kids about puberty or educating them about gender, sex and sexuality. I’d counter that we’re partners in this process. Not all kids will feel comfortable asking a parent about such topics, and not all parents are comfortable raising them.

Schools fill in those gaps. In fact, the Schmitt study recommended that school systems put more resources toward educating kids about periods and puberty, as well as improving parent engagement in that effort.

We should be making these conversations easier, not harder, for all the trusted adults in a child’s life. Adults can’t take all the awkwardness out of puberty, but we can make it easier by giving kids the knowledge they need to navigate it.



Lisa Jarvis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, health care and the pharmaceutical industry. Previously, she was executive editor of Chemical & Engineering News.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.