Family Matters

Q&A: American Girl’s “The Care & Keeping of You 2″ Tackles Puberty

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The sequel to the popular The Care and Keeping of You, which guided preteen girls on buying bras, healthy eating habits and dealing with their periods, ventures into the hormone and angst-ridden world of adolescents.

In the follow-up, published by purveyor of wholesome dolls American Girl, Dr. Cara Natterson continues the tradition of offering kids some sound advice for navigating their trying times.

If you’re sitting at the dinner table and someone says or does something that seems unreasonable, for example, Natterson recommends excusing yourself from the table. Then work off that frustration with some jumping jacks, scribble in a journal, strum a guitar or scream into a pillow — anything to help channel the anger and restore a sense of control.

“You have to identify in the good moments what you are going to do in the bad moments,” says Natterson. And the advice isn’t just for the girls: “Parents read this book as much as kids,” she says.

It’s true. A couple months ago, I got my hands on a copy of the original while bunking overnight in a friend’s daughter’s room. I was riveted — and talked to Natterson about her perspective on why The Care and Keeping of You has been the literary gateway for so many girls hitting puberty.

What has changed since the original book was published in 1998?

The biggest change is the online world. In 1998, the Internet was very different. It was not nearly as pervasive. There were no smartphones. The way in which kids socialize and the way in which they get their information is really different now than when the book came out. And girls and boys are going through puberty a little bit earlier so they want this information at a younger age.

What’s the main difference between the two books?

The original The Care and Keeping of You 1 is a big, broad overview of how to grow up healthfully. We cover nutrition, exercise, hygiene, breasts [Although Natterson didn’t author the original volume, she updated it in the process of writing the second book.] The Care and Keeping of You 2 covers all those topics in much, much greater detail. It covers the why and how. Emotional changes in puberty are not really covered in the first book. When girls’ and boys’ bodies change, their hormones also change. A comment or scenario that one day might get no reaction, the next day might get an overblown reaction. I’ve never met a kid who likes how that feels. They don’t like the high highs and the low lows. I spend a lot of time talking about the biology of why this is happening and some things you can do to help feel more in control.

(MORE: Is Self-Help the Secret to Reducing Childhood Obesity?)

These books are just for girls, right?

Yes. I say that with a heavy heart. There’s not really an equivalent for boys out there.

What are some hot-button topics you address?

The most important thing is the vocabulary. It’s really important for kids to understand their anatomy so they can use the right words when they’re having conversations. Kids are so curious by nature. Now with access to information online, they are looking for the right answers. If we don’t give them the answers, they look themselves. There’s a big glossary at the end of the book: what is labia, where is the vagina? What are the names of the hormones that cause breasts to grow and hips to widen [Answers: estrogen, progesterone, LH and FSH]?

Research has shown that puberty is happening earlier now. What is the average age now?

They are beginning to have signs of body changes – making more sweat or getting moody or little bit of breast development – earlier. The average kid is entering puberty sometime between 8 and 9 though ethnicity affects that. This is a painfully slow process, years and years long. Girls are not getting their periods a whole lot earlier than they used to — between 12 ½ and 12 ¾. But puberty is starting earlier and lasting longer. No one really knows why and no one knows what the long-term effect of this will be. Because our kids are changing at younger ages, they really need more info about how to care for themselves at younger ages. You can’t have a kid with breast buds who is fearful that she’s got breast cancer because she just doesn’t know. That is the classic example.

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What other big issues are girls introduced to in the book?

Sleep. Our children are sleep-deprived. You grow when you sleep. You learn and integrate your knowledge from the day. Your stress hormone levels start to drop. Your moods are definitely more even. People who are sleep-deprived don’t burn through calories as well and that is a large cause of obesity.

What about body image?

The single most pervasive message through both these books is a message of positive self-esteem. If you know how to take care of yourself and feel good about yourself, you will grow into a healthy young woman. When I go into teach in a classroom, a third of those kids are obese or overweight and two to three of them will have an eating disorder. That’s profound. Kids today are struggling on both ends of the spectrum. The single most important thing a parent can do is remind their child that your job is to make sure your child is safe and healthy.

I tell people to throw away their scales. I will hear comments about I’m fat and I don’t like how I look in that. Modeling the right behavior as a parent is the single best thing we can do. It makes no sense to tell them to exercise if we don’t. Practice a mantra: my job is to keep you safe and healthy.

What inspired you to work on this new version of American Girl’s guide to growing up?

In my very first week of work my new partner pulled me into her office and said, There are three or four things you need to know about being a pediatrician: what drops you use for pinkeye, what medication to use for pinworms and every 8-, 9- and 10-year-old girls needs to know about The Care and Keeping of You. I had never heard of that book. I went home and read it. Then I understood because it’s written for kids and empowers girls to take care of themselves.

They call it “word of mom” at American Girl. It’s become a cult classic.

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