The Puberty Lady

Teaching ’less shame and more wonder’
Wendy Sellers
Wendy Sellers Photo by Teri Genovese

What started as a mom volunteering to help in her kids’ classes, using her nursing experience to help them understand puberty, has turned into an over 30-year career for Wendy Sellers that brings her expertise around the world — including right here in Michigan, as the co-author for the state of Michigan’s sex ed curriculum.

Kids know her as “The Puberty Lady,” and the main focus these days for Sellers is addressing what she calls “the wonder years” of fourth, fifth and sixth grades. Her curriculum for these grades is now used in 32 states and six countries, all with an approach of “less shame, more wonder.”

How did a nursing career turn into teaching kids about puberty? I had a horrible sex education, like so many of us. When I had my own children, I wanted them to have better sex ed than I had, and I knew that included not just teaching in the home but also in the school. So, I volunteered to teach the puberty classes in their school.

Why write a curriculum for upper elementary kids? When I was working on the revision of the state curriculum in the mid-1990s, they made a decision to remove all of the lessons on puberty that were already in the curriculum, in fourth, fifth and sixth grade. That left a gap in education for all of our state’s children — so I decided to fill that gap.

You mentioned that filling those gaps in sex education is an act of social justice. What do you mean? There’s really no other topic that we value ignorance in, except sex ed. So, why do we try to keep people ignorant? Oftentimes, it’s to keep people in their place. Sex ed has a lot of aspects of gender equality, equal rights, race relations … even climate change, with the human population.

There’s a long history of taking minority groups’ children away from them. There are issues around health care with race; the discrepancy in health care, for example, with Black women in childbirth is horrible. There’s also been a history of Black women being sterilized against their will, so it’s understandable if they tend to mistrust birth control. The justice implications are far reaching.

Speaking of justice, how can we talk about consent with kids? Consent can be taught from birth because it’s not just about sex. It’s about boundaries. If Great Aunt Sophie comes over and wants a hug and a kiss from your child, and they don’t want to — don’t make them. Give them the right to say yes or no. And if they’re playing and somebody wants to use a toy, make sure that they seek consent for borrowing a possession. Those are not sex things, but consent applies to all kinds of things; we have boundaries for everything.

I imagine, working with preteens, there is also a lot of laughter. If you don’t have a sense of humor, you shouldn’t be teaching puberty education because it is hysterically funny. In my early years of teaching these classes, I was teaching my daughter’s sixth-grade class. The school divided the class up between boys and girls, and I was with the boys.

This darling boy, while I am talking about how babies are made, had his wheels turning. “So, if there are two children in my family, my parents had sex twice, right?” I said, “Yes, at least.”

Well, he’s married now, and he invited me to his wedding. At his wedding, he introduced me to his new bride, whom I had never met. Can you guess how he introduced me?

“This is the woman who taught me everything I know about sex.”

Editor’s note: This interview was condensed and edited for space and clarity.

Tips for parents
Wendy Sellers provides insight on how to approach puberty.

Kids this age are like mechanics.
They just want to know how it works. Keep it simple and straightforward.

Don’t give your kids “the talk.”
Look for teachable moments to create an ongoing, lifelong series of conversations.

Find good books.
There are great tools for parents and kids, of all ages,

You have a lot of power in how your kids are taught.
Join your school’s Sex Ed Advisory Board (it’s required by the state) and insist that your school teaches sex education at a developmentally appropriate level, in a nonshame-based, nonabstinence-only way.

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