Puberty Explained the Filipino Way

My son Jack is in 6th grade. Today he informed me that his health class would be learning about “puberty.” If I didn’t want him to participate, I would need to sign an opt-out form that would remove him from the classroom for the duration of the lecture series.

My daughter Cara, who is a freshman in high school, overheard his request and urged me to permit him to stay in the class. It is social suicide if you leave the room. But of course, I would allow Jack to stay and listen! I want him to learn about the changes boys go through in puberty.

I have been explaining healthy physiologic changes of the body to my children since they were infants as if they were my miniature medical students. None of this baby lingo- pee-pee, poo-poo, wee-wee, boo-boo, tummy-wummy, down thereprivatesdoing it, or other terms to describe the genitalia or normal bodily functions.

No. I use the real terms- bowel movement, abdominal pain, penis, vagina, scrotum, cervix, urinate, erection, pubic hair, and yes, even intercourse.

And when I talk about sexually transmitted infections, I educate them about gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, HIV, and HPV among other diseases, with as much age-appropriate detail as they can tolerate. Typically, they squeal at me, “Mom, TMI!”, but follow that up with another inquiry.

I have the same dialogue with my adolescent patients in the office, so why shouldn’t I with my children? This topic is never comfortable, but at least I have opened it up, and my children will know who to come to with personal questions.

When Cara was going through puberty, we spent three evenings together at the local bakery, snuggled in a corner booth eating chocolate chip cookies and talking about ovaries. Those talks are similar to what I give my dear sheltered patients who don’t understand the “birds and the bees,” minus the comforting hugs and kisses, of course.

I laugh now recalling my own experience with puberty and how naive I was. When I started menstruating, my mama (a psychiatrist), accused me of malingering to avoid chores. I called my older sister into the bathroom when I saw blood.

My sister was only nine months older than me, and no help at all.  She hadn’t started her cycles yet so didn’t know any more than I did. After fifteen minutes of sobbing on the bathroom floor grieving my plans to be a cheerleader, we determined that I was dying from internal bleeding.

Fear must have prompted my sister’s confession to our strict Filipino parents. She told them about my impending death, and suddenly, my mama was standing above me. Without explanation, she handed me a “sanitary pad” (aka crotch mattress), instructed me to march immediately to the basement stairs, jump down from the third step, go directly into the shower without turning around, then go straight to sleep. I was to follow this ritual to prevent excess blood loss.

I followed Mama’s commands carefully but feared that I accidentally peeked over my shoulder and doomed myself to bleed for eternity. I went to bed with so many unanswered questions- why was I suddenly hemorrhaging? Where was it coming from? How do I fit the mini diaper into my size 0 corduroy crotch area and walk so that nobody would know I was wearing it? Why didn’t an older female warn me or any other young girl about the future misery of womanhood? Will I ever be able to wear white again? How do women swim with a pad in their bikini bottoms?

Oh, the questions!

The next day, Mama didn’t say a word about our conversation from the night before, and neither did I.

She is a Filipina mama. The word “sex” should be spoken by old married couples, gynecologists, and prostitutes, NOT mamas, and especially not Filipina mamas.

So, my mama’s first and only attempt to teach me about the “birds and the bees” was when I was a fourth-year medical student.

“Inday” (Filipino term for sweetheart), “do you know about… you know…?” Hinting, but can’t say the words.

“Yes, mom. I’ve already had Biology and Anatomy and Physiology in med school.” (plus, I read Judy Blume’s, Are you there God? It’s me Margaret, so I thank you, Ms. Blume).

Mama looked relieved, “Oh, salamat (thank you)! Well, if you need me to explain…well, you know (she can’t say the word), then you can always ask me, ok ?”.

In case you are interested, you can take a look at the Tanner stages of puberty in boys and girls here.

How did you learn about puberty? Have you discussed this topic with your kids? How did it go? Let’s talk!

Christine Nedeau

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