Parents need to start talking about puberty early

(CNN)When my oldest child turned 11, I figured it was time to talk birds and bees and bodily changes, and purchased a couple of books that friends had recommended. When I tried to read the books with her, or get her to read them herself, or otherwise talk about puberty, she either covered her ears or tossed the books across the room -- or walked out of it.

Many of us have tried broaching the subject -- or subjects -- of puberty with our tweens, only to discover that they're already too uncomfortable to engage.
    To find out what I could and should have done, I asked Rachel Lotus, founder and director of The Talk NYC, a progressive sexuality education company. Her answer? We need to start earlier.
      Parents of younger kids -- think preschool and early elementary -- can make puberty a regular part of family discussions and book collections long before bodily changes are on the horizon.
      "If you introduce these topics when kids are very young in an age-appropriate way, then, when they are at the age where it actually starts to become really relevant, they don't feel so awkward and uncomfortable about it," Lotus said.
      If you wait until the precipice of puberty, she said, "you end up introducing tons of content and lots of new language and ideas. It's so much more challenging to make those conversations feel comfortable for both parents and kids."
        Puberty education is also shown to reduce anxiety and improve attitudes in adolescents. But with puberty occurring earlier in many parts of the world, the need to normalize discussions for younger kids has increased.

        Become your child's trusted source

        How do we do that? First, dispense with the notion of sitting down for a single, gendered, planned birds-and-bees talk, Lotus suggested.
        Replace that single talk with a series of age-appropriate chats, whenever opportunities present themselves, about both male and female puberty, regardless of your child's sex or gender identity. It can happen when kids ask questions about parents' bodies, when issues arise in TV shows or books, or when you're baking cookies or driving somewhere together and have a captive audience.
        "We're starting when kids are verbal with proper names of body parts and then, a couple of years later, we're building in more knowledge about what bodies do and how that relates to babies," she said. "A couple of years after that, we're having more meaningful conversations about gender expression and roles and identity." By the time kids are approaching puberty, "They've got all this knowledge accumulated."
        Don't try to 'catch up' this summer