JULIE METZGER ANSWERS questions for a living. Questions like, “I’ve heard that if you eat corn, you grow breasts faster. Is that true?” For more than two decades the UW grad and registered nurse has taught a two-night class on puberty and sexuality that’s become a rite of passage for preteen girls and their mothers in Seattle, and along the way she’s fielded thousands of queries—some funny, some poignant, and all fascinating glimpses of the hormone-addled minds of kids. This spring she and Dr. Rob Lehman (he teaches the class to boys and their dads) answer nearly 400 of them in their first book, Will Puberty Last My Whole Life? (Spoiler alert: The answer to that one, mercifully, is no.)
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In the same class, I’ve had a mom say, “I can’t believe you said the word sex out loud,” and another mom complain that I didn’t talk about some very obscure sex act. This is the world we live in.
The humor and the content and the style and the atmosphere and the mojo in the room is all about the 10- to 12-year-old. I have 100 percent confidence that 90 percent of fifth graders will feel like they belong there. There are some 10-year-olds who might think, Whoa, what are you talking about? but they tend to be the oldest kids in that family. And then there are nine-year-olds who are the youngest kids from a family of five, and they’re like, I could teach this class.
I have a couple nicknames: Puberty Lady or the Sex Lady. My kids think that’s so funny. One of my daughters wrote a paper once titled, “The Life and Times of the Puberty Lady’s Kid.”
You probably never asked your dad or mom, “Hey, what positions are best?” But as a kid you want your parents to be resources for you about who you are as a person, what you expect from relationships, what you look for in partners. Our job as clinicians and health care providers is to make sure that we speak to the real facts, the real information.
There are all sorts of myths around sex. There’s all sorts of literature from our grandmothers’ time that said things like you couldn’t go to a dance or play basketball when you’re having your period. And those myths still get passed on. So after we lay out these facts in class, lots of times on the evaluations the moms will write, “I’m so glad I came because I’ve been living with this myth my whole life. It’s so freeing to hear that it’s not true.”
My dad is a urologist. My mom is a nurse. The words vasectomy and penis were part of dinner table conversations at our house.
I don’t relish talking about masturbation. It’s hard to talk about with girls. The people who are interested in it, it can be incredibly helpful for them, in terms of hearing me say, “Some people do it, some people don’t.” But there are other people for whom it is not even remotely in their mental space. Some of it has to do with the fact that they’re not old enough to have some of the feelings that drive that behavior. But there isn’t a single boy’s class that wouldn’t talk about that. It’s so familiar for them and so much a part of their culture, their life, their lifestyle, that to not talk about it would be weird.
I taught on 9/11. I taught the day of Columbine. And on both of those days, there was so much opportunity for healing, even through these topics—about relationships, about caring for each other, about intimacy, about respect, about leaning in toward each other.
In 24 years the questions raised in class have been essentially the same—up until this point. We’re in the middle of a titanic shift, centered on homosexuality. Some families are asking us to speak more to it; in fact, they’re uncomfortable if we don’t explore it enough. But then others ask us to not bring it up at all. The distance between those two families’ comfort levels is huge, and that means where you walk as a speaker—so that everyone feels honored—is actually incredibly narrow. The more strongly people feel on a certain topic, the narrower the path.
For the first 10 years of doing this I thought I was talking to the girls. But I realized about 14 years ago that this is actually all about the moms. I think I’m giving them permission to laugh about these topics or talk more loosely about them. I’m giving them language and a tone to use, and I’m creating an openness to the topic. The girls totally benefit. But the people who walk away most transformed are the parents.
This takes a lifetime to learn about. We say to families all the time, “This has been one 200-minute conversation. Go out and have 200 one-minute conversations with each other.”