October 13, 2008

Early Puberty Causes School Sex Education ‘National Crisis’


As children as young as seven enter puberty, a top research scientist calls for high-level action from schools and health authorities to help them cope. Donna Chisholm reports. ----------- --------- A TOP RESEARCH scientist is calling for high-level action from schools and health authorities to help children cope with the early onset of puberty.

"It's an emerging national crisis," says Liggins Institute director Professor Peter Gluckman.

"How many people in this country are competent to talk to an eight or nine-old boy or girl about what's happening to their body? Most parents aren't, because they didn't go through puberty at that age, and teachers I meet, no matter how willing they are, admit they aren't prepared to deal with it."

Gluckman, an expert in the implications of evolutionary biology for health, is calling on educators and health authorities to talk to psychologists and other experts to develop a comprehensive life skills programme for young people.

"The most important machine people will ever drive is their own body and what we don't do in this country is to teach people to drive their own body.

"We shouldn't leave it to the hobby horses of individuals in this ministry or that - we need a proper, coherent, integrated approach. Sex and health education has to become mainstream and away from the idea that it's only for the phys-ed teacher who is least equipped to deal with it."

Current teaching is ad hoc and fragmented, he says. "The mechanical aspects are being taught but this is about understanding how your body will change over time. If you're a seven-and-a-half- year-old girl getting breast buds, don't you have the right to know what's happening to your body? You are probably scared witless."

International research shows that although children are maturing physically earlier - between 11 and 13 for girls, with boys a year or two later - compared to about 17, two centuries ago - the wisdom and judgement pathways in their brain do not mature until much later.

"New MRI scanners have looked at the brain over time to see how it matures and several studies have shown quite dramatically that the last parts to mature deal with things like logic, judgement and wisdom. Those x-rays show they may not be mature until people are 25 to 30."

He suspected those parts of the brain took longer to mature because society was more complex and "it takes longer to learn to drive the space shuttle than to ride a bike". "But I think we have removed an emphasis on wisdom and judgement in terms of what responsibility we give them. We have a blame, lock 'em up, punish them approach rather than understanding the issues."

He says school, legal and society structures were based on the presumption of a total match between the age that a child became physically mature and emotionally mature and that was not the case. "The extent of the mismatch now is unique in the history of mankind. We should be less in blame mode - these children have a challenge as a generation that no other generation has ever faced before in their life."

A Swiss study showed that children who went through puberty earlier were more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, be more anxious and depressed and have sex earlier. "In boys, the attempted suicide rate was five times higher in those who went through early puberty than those who went through it at a normal age, which is a frightening statistic. Nothing I know of comes close as a risk factor for teen suicide," said Gluckman.

"There is a lot of evidence that kids are almost forced into sexual activity, are uncomfortable with it, and it causes them a lot of anxiety. Without helping them to understand their bodies better and to gain judgement, can we really imagine that they can resist the hormonal urges, the peer pressure and the media-based sexual onslaughts for five years or more? Just telling them to keep their legs crossed is not enough."

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