I have two daughters, and when I signed the daddy contract in blood six years ago, it was understood that puberty was a teenage phenomenon. It would come along at 13 with fits of giggling, a solid dedication to making my life miserable and an incurable fixation with wild horses. Also, eerily, breasts.
But, check that, I've only got two years and counting. See, eight years old used to be the medical definition for abnormally early puberty. But now, it's the new normal. Based on several studies, scientists are recommending that the age of abnormal puberty be dropped to 7 for Caucasians, 6 for African-Americans. Eight is the new normal.
In fact, puberty has been coming earlier by a month every decade for a long time. That adds up. Why? Well, for a while, it was because our lives were improving. The body was just ready earlier. But not anymore:
In short, that finely tuned biological process may have reached a tipping point. Since the 1960s, Herman-Giddens says, the decline in the age of maturity has crossed the line from positive reasons, such as better diet, to negative ones, such as eating too much, exercising too little and the vast unknowns of chemical pollution.
I had wanted to wait and talk to my daughters about the birds and bees after they could at least spell the words. Scratch that, I had wanted to bribe my wife into talking to them about it. But now, it's going to be out of pull-ups and into tampons.
Maybe I'm exaggerating. And there is a main point here besides my daddy freakout.
See, lots of researchers have theorized about this. Maybe its hormones in milk! Maybe its just tweenie boobs from all that Mickey D fat! Or maybe its that estrogen in the water that's making the hermaphrodite fish! No, seriously.
But there's no conclusive evidence for any chemical, or for obesity or any other lifestyle cause. And it would be unethical to, you know, drug children until you found the answer.
This points to the idea of one problem, one solution. Classically, scientists are trained to hypothesize and prove a single solution for a given problem. But given the complexity of life, that may not be possible any longer.
Most resilience theories put people squarely within an intersecting set of influences: social, environmental, economic, and organizational, to name a few.
Maybe it's not a particular chemical. It could be the interaction between the environmental factors and the lifestyle choices (milk, McDonald's) that people are making. That means that the problem could hit economically vulnerable kids more strongly - because they are more dependent on unhealthy food and often live in more contaminated areas.
Actually, its depressing that I have to write that some kids live in contaminated areas. But, hell, if we're making fish hermaphrodites against their will, something scary is going on. No offense intended toward fish that freely choose a safe, hermaphroditic lifestyle.
The point is that all of these factors influence each other. If we focus on eliminating estrogen in water or obesity in kids, we win a battle but not the war. We have to start thinking of our communities as urban eco-systems where everything effects everything else. To fix the problems, we've got to heal the community as a whole. We have to connect the symptoms-even the freaky breast budding symptoms-to the whole network of influences. Or we risk tipping the balance even more when we try to help.
And, believe me, my three year old is not ready for puberty, yet.