Boys might be hitting puberty earlier, too

Several studies have now led to a scientific consensus that American girls are hitting puberty earlier. Now, a new study suggests that the same might also be true of boys. The New York Times has a very good article on this that gets into the nuances of the research and explains what this information might mean (and what it doesn't mean).

There are a couple of key things that I found to be particularly interesting:

• There's enough evidence now that scientists generally agree girls are growing breasts at a younger age than they used to. But it's a lot less clear whether or not their periods are starting earlier, too. In fact, the evidence accumulating on that is leading scientists to start wondering whether breast development and menstruation aren't as closely tied together as we previously thought.

• It's a bit difficult to know whether this study in boys actually represents a real change because earlier research on when boys hit puberty — essentially, the stuff this study is comparing modern boys against — is often flawed. One 40-year-old study mentioned in the story established guidelines for how all boys should be developing and when based solely on photographs of 228 white boys from a London juvie facility.

• Even if both boys and girls are hitting puberty earlier, scientists acknowledge that the social results are very, very different. Parents don't particularly care when their 9-year-old son's testicles get bigger. Parents are deeply concerned when their 9-year-old daughter grows breasts. And with good reason. Even if a woman otherwise looks very young, people start treating her differently once the boobs kick in — "differently" in ways that can be really problematic for a 9-year-old. I had a friend in grade school who had breasts by 4th or 5th grade. She'd get cat-called on the street by grown men.

• There is a legitimate medical tool that consists of a string of wooden beads used to estimate testicle volume. Doctors hold the beads up and compare the size of the beads to the size of the guy's nuts. You can't make this stuff up.

Read the full story at The New York Times

Image: Boy climbs tree, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from devcentre's photostream


  1. I’ve just been reading The Odyssey for a course on the excellent  Anyways, towards the end, Penelope announces that she was to marry again when Telemachus began to grow hairs on his chin and that time has now come.  Telemachus is nineteen at this stage!  (I must find out whether there are any translation differences between beginning to grow hairs and growing a full beard…)

    1. Facial hair grows so differently on different boys, and hair on the chin is often the last to grow (most kids are stuck with those stupid hairs on the sides of the upper lip for a while…). I think I only started growing a beard on my chin and cheeks at around 17. 19 sounds old but not outrageous for being able to grow a beard.

      1. I was told by teachers to shave at 15 (before my brother, he is older by 1.5 years btw), however I was also already 6′ at that age.

      2. I think my chin hairs started first, at around age 19. Next were sideburns. At 34, I’ve yet to develop a mustache.

      3. Fair point; I guess I was considering the chin to be the whole jaw line including sideburns, but really I suppose it’s probly meant to be just the pointy bit.

    1. I would say a society which breaks apart extended families is askew, and an economy which keeps people unemployed even in good years is askew, and the political influence of finance, insurance, and real estate is askew.

      1. I agree.  What I meant to point out is that kids are physically maturing earlier and earlier, and yet socially and economically juvenile long past the age of majority.  And that causes problems that simply didn’t exist a century ago.  Last year I lived in a neighborhood with many many teen mothers and no teen fathers.

        I do hope this doesn’t start a flame war, but it seemed relevant.

        1. Murphy Brown taught America that families don’t need fathers. Boomers insisted that growing up is to be avoided. And we get to live with the results.

          1. This “growing up” of which you speak, I do not recognize it. Are you saying that the adults of the past were somehow “more adult” than today?

          2. Well there have been observed that kids that are given responsibilities, and held to account regarding them, early on behave more “adult”.

          3. An awful lot of awful fathers taught America that sometimes families are better off without fathers.

            Most people don’t take their cues from one TV program….especially one that occurred decades after the change started showing up in the culture.

        2.  To be fair the time that a person moves out of the house depends heavily on cultural and historical context. Children living with their parents well into adulthood is only a “new” thing if you are limiting your view to the last century in North America. Practises were different in different eras and are different around the globe. Granted, this study is probably biased toward North America too.
          Also teen motherhood was a regular thing 100 years ago, people were just a lot more ashamed of it and hid it from the neighbours. See: Jack Nicholson’s childhood

          1. I will admit the last century in North America is the only time and place I’ve ever lived. 

            And maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe it’s just fine if the new normal is for teen mothers to be abandoned by their sperm donors, unable to complete their education and barely fed by welfare and SNAP.  Maybe it worked out well in Victorian London, or somewhere.

          2.  I’m not saying it’s right. I’m saying that the past was not a golden age. We are getting better, and these problems can (and often will) be dealt with.

          3. The old normal (for millennia) was for most women to be pregnant in their teens, and oftentimes dying as a result.

          4. Another thing to keep in mind that that part of this “moving out” is the act of buying ones own place. This is a very political act in USA based on the idea that home owners do not riot…

    2.  Yes, quite wrong. People mostly used to live with their parents until their parents passed of old age.

    3. That’s right – old folks should be carted off to nursing homes as soon as they weaken.  Any support from their adult children other than signing checks to the nursing homes is inappropriate.  Or something.

      Yes, I do get your point, and I realize that’s not what you’re advocating – still though.

      I dimly recall something from an anthro course many moons ago, about an approach where families in some parts of Europe (maybe the Balkans somewhere?) maintains two houses or apartments, with alternate adult generations living in them – when the children find the pressure of living with their parents (who are used to telling them what to do, etc.) gets too much, they move to the other home, with their grandparents.  The grandparents and grandchildren don’t have those patterns entrenched, so they can establish how they will live together as adults and equals.  The younger generation is there to support their elders, without driving one another too crazy.

  2. IQs have increased over time as well due to the Flynn effect. It has been theorized that the Flynn effect is due to better nutrition, less environmental toxins, and less debilitating disease experiences. Perhaps the same could affect puberty. Or perhaps it is all the different types of hormones we give to our livestock.

      1. I wouldn’t be at all surprised. All of modern meat raising is entirely devoted to raising animals faster — mostly for faster weight gain (that’s the main reason for antibiotics),  but I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t make them able to have offspring sooner.

        1. “Modern meat raising?” BPA has been in US food production since the 1930’s. Canada and Europe have banned the usage of BPA. The FDA, although it is aware of the fact that BPA exists in things as innocuous as receipts (the waxy paper used in almost all commercial receipts), the interiors of all cans, not to mention what other chemicals are used to produce super foods, meats, vegetables, fruits, et al, as well as whether, or rather, how much or water has been compromised by runoff from farms. There are young girls who not only have breasts in the second grade (Los Angeles area schools) but some have started their menses as young as ten.  The FDA knows how much is too much exposure to BPA for human consumption but the cumulative effect from multiple sources has never been quantified by the FDA. Big Agra, think Monsanto, spends a lot of money to ensure their billions.

  3. “Guy’s nuts”? So, earlier when you refer to ‘breasts’, did you mean to say ‘dirty pillows’?

    1. You’re reading too quickly.  After she’s introduced the subject of breasts, Maggie later says “…people start treating her differently once the boobs kick in.”  Contrariwise, she says “nuts” after she’s introduced the topic by referring to “testicle volume.”  So she’s being equal-opportunity informal.

      1. How the nuts did I not know the term ‘funbag’? I knew the term funbagS ’cause of House, but not funbag.

        What a great term – thank-you!

          1. Neal: Del… Why did you kiss my ear? 
            Del: Why are you holding my hand? 
            Neal: [frowns] Where’s your other hand? 
            Del: Between two pillows… 
            Neal: Those aren’t pillows! 

            That’s no Moon!

    2. C’mmon bra, I’ve always liked the ‘nuts’ euphemism. 

      When I see written ‘dirty pillows’, I think dirty pillows. Applied to breasteses, it’s just not descriptive, it’s insulting and provoking to point of flame to those sporting breasteses, and their supporters.

      When I think of ‘nuts’ describing testicles — Balls, I think of golden, hard to crack walnuts. How could comparing nuts to testicles be insulting? Nuts, for example, walnuts kinda are brass coloured, like brass, like big brass balls. 

      Really bra, isn’t ‘dirty pillows’ a bit insulting, ftw? 


        1. Ah, that’s not actually an orchid. What you’ve got hold of there is the one named after the Latin, not the Greek, the little-known Gynophilaea testiculosus — also known colloquially as the Latin orchid (although not actually an orchid). G. testiculosus, unlike members of the Orchidaceae family, respond to touch: a brief, soft touch will cause the leaves to uncurl, while a sharp rap will cause the flower to pull up into the leafy bundle. The flower also turns bright blue during the spring, gradually losing its color to become tan by late summer, and pasty white by late fall.

          1. I don’t know about you, but soft touches makes mine uncurl, but if you start trying to strike it, I’m afraid I don’t have the capacity to retract as a muscular reflex.

            (I’m sorry, I had to go there.)

  4. Apparently it is because they are overweight. And they are comparing results to a questionable study from 40 years ago.

    1. Heh, 40 years is a long time ago in terms of sexuality and gender studies. As for overweight, not surprised. I recall reading that female dancers develop slower thanks to higher physical activity keeping down body fat.

  5. At least a faint mention should be made of the mostly discounted theory of neoteny as a means of “backing out” of evolutionary dead-ends/over-specialization.  In the neoteny theory the juveniles of a species become capable of reproduction without progressing to what is the current adult form and therefore (or so the theory goes) a new dominate form is attained.  This theory was once used to suggest that humans were the ‘infant form’ of the great ape; larger head to body ratios, less hair, etc.   Soo…. look to your toddlers folks!  for they shall become our big-headed, short-limbed, even-more-hairless, (cartoon space alien) replacements!  [wink]

  6. “But it’s a lot less clear whether or not their periods are starting earlier, too.”

    Japan has been keeping detailed records regarding the onset of menstruation for over a hundred years. When I lived there in the 90’s, and while I was reading books like Silent Spring and Our Stolen Future, there was a study that showed that between 1905 and 1990, the average age went from 16 to 12.  

  7. Wait, so the person that wrote this article only knew one girl with boobs by the 4th/5th grade?  When I was in elem school there were several girls growiin em by the 2nd grade, and by the 5th grade I’d swear one of em was getting close to a D cup.  I know for a fact several of the girls were wearing bras in 3rd grade cause we could see the straps through their shirts, though that said no one, that I noticed at least, alienated other kids based on the size of their chest.

    Then again, all through my school life it seemed my generation was more mature overall than some of the older and most of the younger kids.  At the very least we didn’t have any major bullying incidents that lead to people offing themselves, though every so often there would be a fight between two girls over something stupid or two people for racism and then they’d punish everyone including those that had absolutely nothing to do with the fight and indeed weren’t even there when it happened.

    Maybe the teachers had an idea, since no one seemed to like them so we all channeled our hate towards them for the most part, especially principals and vice principals.  That and we’d always voice our disgust with uniforms.

  8. I recall reading a master’s thesis, from Loma Linda (I think) where the author studied puberty onset in relation to diet. He found that girls whose diet primarily consisted of carbohydrates reached puberty a few years earlier than those who had a balanced diet. His study groups came from the south where cornmeal mush and sorghum syrup was common dinner fare for families of lower economic status.

    Onset of menses was a key element of the study and the conclusion followed the physical changes. Adolescent aged girls did indeed begin earlier.

  9. I read a while ago about an interesting study that came to similar conclusions over a longer timespan.

    The trick there was that historical medical records of onset of menstruation were available, but nothing similar for boys.  They ended up making the assumption that the tendency of adolescent men to do stupid shit and get injured at a higher rate was mainly biologically based, then compared medical records of accidental injuries, looking for a spike among young men.  They found that, sure enough, the spike used to come at a somewhat older age.

    All sorts of possible other explanations, which they acknowledged, but still a cool approach and finding.

  10. We all remember the kid who could grow a 5 oclock shadow by the end of the school day in 5th grade.

  11. The poor kids.  As far as I can recall, puberty sucked.  And then it is followed by adulthood, which has stabler hormones but also working for a living.  Long live childhood – I would hate to see my 7 year old start puberty in 2 years, he is having so much fun now.

  12. As I recall, my younger sister went through puberty several years before I did. My parents were anxious about it, but never spoke to me directly about it, just kept reassuring me that it was okay to be a “late bloomer” for no reason I understood. It was only in adulthood, comparing notes with my sister, that I found out what that had been about. Most of their reassurances took the form of deriding people who went through puberty early, which I found in no way comforting and really rather weird at the time; in retrospect, it must have been awful for my sister to overhear it.

    Anyway, my sister and I must have had nearly identical diets, so I’m not sure whether I could attribute the differences to our diets.

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