February 9, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
That this article appeared in the New York Times was cause for mild alarm (New York Times, 2/5/15). The Times has proven itself time and again to be at best uninterested in fathers and all the many benefits fathers’ presence in the home confers on kids. That of course is when the editors aren’t being overtly hostile to the concept which is often enough. So when I read the headline “What Causes Girls to Enter Puberty Early?” I feared the worst.
After all, in culture after culture, father absence has been highly correlated with early onset of puberty in girls. Would the Times piece carefully ignore that wealth of scientific information in favor of other, less proven causes? So I was pleasantly surprised when the authors actually got around to mentioning father absence as a correlate of early menarche. That doesn’t make the article a very good one, but at least authors Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff got that much right.
Why should we care if a girl enters puberty early? A number of reasons.
For some reason the authors neglected to mention the main reason we should be concerned. Yes, they mention “early sexual activity,” but they don’t mention early pregnancy. Girls getting pregnant and giving birth, often as early as their middle school years is bad for everyone concerned. It’s bad for the young mother whose life is dramatically altered and who likely has little understanding of how to care for a child. It’s bad for the child to be raised by an inexperienced mother and almost certainly no father. It’s bad for the girl’s support group, usually her own mother, and other relatives, who all of a sudden have an infant to help care for and support. And it’s bad for the taxpayer who often ends up footing much of the childcare bill. Strange that Greenspan and Deardorff didn’t mention pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing as problems with early menarche.
On the bright side, they did put to rest some of the claims about causation for which there’s little support.
[A]s doctors, we wince at misleading stories that blame substances that are not likely to bear the primary responsibility — hormones in our meat or soy in our diets, for instance. The real culprits include two problems that are often overlooked: obesity and family stress.
Hmm. Well, one of the “real culprits” is also the absence of the girl’s father from the home as the authors belatedly state.
A girl who grows up without her biological father is twice as likely to get her period before age 12 compared with a girl reared with her father in the home. The effects of fathers may or may not be linked to stress, but a father’s presence in the home does seem to matter when it comes to puberty.
So why doesn’t father absence make it into their category of “real culprits” of early puberty in girls? Who knows? Perhaps Greenspan and Deardorff are simply unaware of the cross-cultural findings on the matter. Indeed, given the rest of their article, I’d say that’s almost a certainty.
The authors rightly tag obesity as a likely cause due to the tendency of body fat to produce estrogen. And so anything that produces obesity, like a diet high in fat and sugar, can contribute to early puberty and its attendant ill consequences. Fine, but then the two go off into chemical exposure as a potential cause of early puberty despite the fact that there’s not a lot of evidence to back it up.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are also a concern because they can mimic hormones, like estrogen, that are the key players in a girl’s body during puberty. Many chemicals, including those in fire retardants and plastics, disrupt reproductive development in animals; however, more research is needed on humans.
All true, but if Greenspan and Deardorff were aware of the research that’s been conducted among poor, largely agrarian populations in non-industrial parts of the world, surely they’d be more likely to bypass the problem of industrial chemical exposure. When girls who have little or none of that exposure, but who do lack fathers (often due to death) and still tend toward early puberty, it should be enough to rank fatherlessness higher on the scale of probable causes. But apparently the two don’t know about those studies.
That lack of information becomes even more apparent when they get into their suggested solutions to the problem.
There are ways to protect against early puberty. Breast-feeding early in life appears to help. What’s more, when a mother maintains a healthy weight before and during pregnancy, her daughter is less likely to get her period early…
We also need to continue to improve our daily menus and enhance the quality of school lunch programs. Opting for alternatives to sweet drinks and candy as the ubiquitous rewards for school achievement, good behavior and celebrations is a start. And adults need to demonstrate healthy habits that support our own ideal weights and reduce stress levels.
I’m all for healthy diets for everyone, not just kids. But again, those agrarian poor who also demonstrate early menarche in fatherless girls don’t tend to have diets that look anything like those of our own urban poor. What both populations share is a tragic absence of fathers.
Tellingly, even though Greenspan and Deardorff mention father absence as a factor in early menarche, connecting fathers with their daughters appears nowhere in their list of solutions to the problem. Changing family law to promote shared parenting post-divorce would be a good place to start. Teaching those very girls who are sexually active at astonishingly early ages, and the boys who are their partners, that children need both parents would be another good idea. Teaching them that the decision to have a child is, in all but the rarest of situations, the decision to be an active parent to it for the next 18 years wouldn’t hurt either. Teaching boys that childcare isn’t the exclusive domain of mothers would help. So would teaching girls that the child is not theirs alone, but the father’s too, that mothers aren’t free to push fathers out of their children’s lives.
But despite their reference to the problem of father absence, after that, Greenspan and Deardorff drop the subject altogether. Are they really serious about solving the problem?
Growing up in unpredictable households with high levels of conflict leads to early maturation.
That sounds suspiciously like one excuse family courts use for removing fathers from their children’s lives. All Mom has to do is create conflict and — presto! — she has a readymade (often statutory) excuse for sole or primary custody. That shared parenting tends to lessen parental conflict is a fact, but sadly one that’s routinely ignored by family court judges. It looks like Greenspan and Deardorff are contributing, whether consciously or not, to that very tendency. Whenever parental “conflict” is mentioned in connection with children’s welfare, you can bet that shoving Dad out of the child’s life is just around the corner.
I can’t say if the two authors are promoting that or not, but hey, it’s the New York Times.
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#NewYorkTimes, #earlypuberty, #fatherlessness