Research recently referred to in the Guardian newspaper (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/oct/21/puberty-adolescence-childhood-onset) highlighted that girls are experiencing puberty eight years earlier – on average – than was the case 100 years ago. Some signs of puberty are evident in medical examinations of girls at an average age of less than 9 years, in some ethnic groups.
More is known about the speed and durability of the this trend than the reasons for it. But we do know that it is not limited to girls: further research suggests that boys are maturing physically fast than ever before, too. (See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/20/us-study-boys-puberty-earlier).
Potential causes range from diet to chemical pollution, and include consideration of social as well as biological causes. One research project, which unusually looked at the causes rather than the existence of these changes, found correlation between family instability, and particularly the absence of a father figure, and early puberty in girls (http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/dev/44/5/1409/). There is, potentially, an evolutionary explanation here: a herd of grazing animals might reasonably be expected to evolve an earlier arrival at adult capabilities by means of predators thinning out the genetic stock of those who are slow to mature – because the slow maturers would be vulnerable for longer. However, human development has not been marked by the need to survive the attentions of predators – at least in recent times!
There is clearly more work for researchers to do on the causes, but it is worth spending a few moments considering the consequences. One hundred years ago, a young woman had 12 years of cognizant evaluation, communication and assimilation between the age of 4 and 16 to come to terms with their place in the world, before they had to consider the consequences of the sexual maturity. Now girls have an average of 4-6 years, depending on their ethnic group, to do this – for some the time period has halved, for others it is now one third of the time their great grandmothers had. No wonder childhood and teenage mental health is poor.
Consider, too, the frequent assertion that young people are sexualised at a younger age. Is this a cause of these changes, or is it a consequence: do boys and girls become sexually aware of each other at a younger age because of the changes in their bodies rather than wholly because of cultural trends, as is often asserted?
Answers to these questions are likely to take some time to be formulated, tested, and refined. In the meanwhile, perhaps, parents should reflect that the fact that all is not as it was ‘when we were young’ is not entirely the fault of today’s young – who have a harder existence in many respects than their parents did.
Parents, and schools, should give more attention than ever to the fact that children – for that is what they are – are going to reach sexual capability, if not sexual maturity, at an age when culturally, and legally they are expected to be chaste. Enabling young people to navigate the years (for some a decade) between reaching an age of sexual capability and arriving at emotional maturity and legal majority is a major challenge for schools, and parents too, and one they will have to take up if young people are to be well prepared for young adulthood in today’s world. It is hard to see how the long interval this involves for today’s young people will be manageable without parents and schools unfashionably reinstating abstinence to the sex education programme.