When our boy/girl twins were infants and toddlers, I don’t know how many times we got the strange question from people, “Are they identical?” Depending on who was asking and what mood I was in at the time, I could explain that boy girl twins are, with rare exception, not identical. When I was feeling especially saucy, I would answer with, “No, he has a penis and she has a vulva.”
Other parents of boy/girl multiples want to know how we addressed these differences with our twins. Every family is going to be different based on your personal level of comfort with the human body and modesty. We never made a big deal about nudity. They bathed and showered together until they were in grade school and were naked in front of each other on a regular basis probably until middle school. Now they are completely grossed out if they see their sibling nude, and that seems developmentally appropriate. We let them lead the way in determining what was comfortable for them. We never wanted them to feel that there was anything to be ashamed of about their bodies, but we also insisted they were covered appropriately in front of people who are not our immediate family of four.
In our family, Dad is a doctor and Mom, a biologist and teacher so to us, parts are parts. We always have named the body parts their actual anatomical names. It wasn’t until grade school that they started using other names for them that they learned from friends. To us though, boys have a penis and a scrotum with testicles. Girls have a vulva and breasts.
As my daughter turned 9, I started to be concerned about how early some girls were starting puberty. In my family, girls develop later, but in my husband’s family, girls develop early. I wanted to be prepared to talk with her about the changes some of her friends were experiencing and what she could expect in a way that felt natural and not at all scary or shameful. I spoke to moms from this group with older daughters and other friends with older daughters, and then decided to order The Care and Keeping of You 1: The Body Book for Younger Girls 1 . This book focuses on the changes your body goes through during puberty and does not address how babies are made. I intended to read through it myself, then sit with Savannah and read it together, answering any questions she may have. I also planned to order a book for my son on boys’ bodies and do something similar. My plan was then to swap the books so the kids would know what to expect would be going on with their sibling.
Apparently, I did not clue Dad in on this plan. I ordered the book, promptly forgot about it, and went on with life. A week or so later, I was working intently on the computer in my small home office preparing for a meeting of the school board, of which I was a member, when my daughter comes in and asks me a question about how developed her ‘boobs’ were on scale of 0-3. I thought it was strange and answered, “You don’t have boobs, but your breasts are exactly the size they should be for a girl your age. Mom is busy, let me finish up.” She then shoves the book in front of me that shows stages of breast development drawn in and demands I help her determine where she is on the scale. I was a little shocked and asked where she got the book. Apparently, Dad opened my Amazon package, saw the book said American Girl, and handed it to her without having any idea what it was. She had already read it from cover to cover and wanted to know if she would wear “tampoons” when she got her period. To say I felt wholly unprepared and blindsided was an understatement. The room shrunk to about 2 feet square. The temperature rose about 200 degrees. I started to sweat and to stammer. This was NOT how I had expected to have this conversation. I wanted to kill my husband, but that would have to wait because the next thing I knew my son walked in and said, “Are y’all talking about tampoooooooons?” I died. For real died. There should be a death certificate filed somewhere.
After my heart restarted, I took a deep breath. I asked them about reading the book. They both said they read it. I asked what they thought about it. My daughter loved it. My son thought it was good to know what girls would go through, and he was glad he was not a girl. I let them both flip through and show me things they thought were especially interesting or troubling for a few minutes. I then told them that not all families were ready to have these conversations and that they were not to share what they had learned with their friends. There is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s important that Moms and Dads make sure children know the right things about their bodies and are able to answer questions if anything feels scary. Thank the good Lord, we did have to leave soon so we could make this a short introduction. Short and sweet is always best when having important talks with younger children. Letting them lead the conversation with their own questions is another way to reduce their anxiety, providing them a sense of agency in the matter.
Though I initially thought I had blown the whole thing, it was a blessing in disguise. Instead of some grand plan I put in place, this worked out to be just the right way for my two to be introduced to puberty. They are very high-level readers, and not easily perturbed. Some kids might need a gentler introduction like my original plan. You will know what is right for your kids. Not long after, I ordered the Body Book for Boys 2 which handles male puberty in a remarkably similar fashion as the American Girl book. I gave it first to my son, then he passed it on to his sister. They asked me questions separately, then we talked together. We kept both books for several years and referenced them as needed.
We want to raise children to feel like all the functions of your body’s reproductive system are just as natural and normal as any other part of your body. We do not want our daughter to feel shame when she has her menstrual period, and we want our son to be the kind of boy who would go to the nurse and get a pad or tampon for a girl who needed one. We want him to buy feminine products at the store for his wife and help her in the hospital when she has a baby without being weirded out. So far, it seems they are both fairly comfortable talking about body stuff. My daughter, more than her brother, but he is not at all bothered by it. And us girls still jokingly call tampons, “tampoooons.”
Schaefer, Valorie, and Masse, Josee, The Care and Keeping of You: The Bod Book for Younger Girls, American Girl, 2012.
Paley, Rebecca, Norwich, Grace, and Mar, Jonathan, The Body Book for Boys, Scholastic Paperbacks, 2010.
Linda Kennedy is a former teacher who is passionate about children and learning with a special love for kids in middle and high school, a community volunteer and wife of 25 years to Shane, mom to twins Shane and Savannah.