Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.
“Oh, puberty,” laments Amanda Rodriguez, a mom of three boys, ages 8, 11 and 14.
I had asked her about that moment when she knew that her older boys definitely needed to start wearing deodorant.
“All of the smelly fun a girl can handle,” the Frederick, Maryland, mom joked, noting how the body odor is just beginning with her middle son.
“I would say the first few months are the hardest,” said Rodriguez, founder of the blog Dude Mom. “Initially, they are reluctant, even rebellious, and unwilling to accept the fact that deodorant is a requirement and no longer a fun novelty. It’s like they are nose-blind to the fact that they are ripe. They need constant reminders, lots of smell checks, extra time to prepare for each day.”
As a parent, there is a plenty of adjustment too, she says. “I have to remember to remind them that they need to get up early to shower and put on deodorant before they leave,” she said. “It’s a habit we all have to work together to form.”
Lisa Flick Wilson, a mom of twin boy-girl tweens who are 11, almost feels like she has this “laboratory just exploding at all times right before” her eyes.
‘You harken back to that time when you were that one in grade school that stunk and you were like, ‘God, I wish my mom would have told me I stunk!’ ”
But how exactly do you give your tween or teen that information, especially if they signal that they have no interest in discussing the topic?
In the second installment of our new CNN Digital Video series “Parent Acts,” we asked parents to act out what their children do and say when it comes to the body odor conversation, and then we had a parenting expert listen to their roleplay to weigh in with advice.
Tell the kids it’s ‘bacteria poop’
Erik Fisher is a psychologist working in the Atlanta area and co-author of “The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With.”
He says parents want to be careful not to use shame, guilt, humiliation or embarrassment to get any message across. “OK, they might feel those things as a result of the discussion, that’s part of the human experience, but when you use it as a weapon, that surrounds the whole thing with something that really doesn’t become the learning experience you want it to be,” he said.
Flick Wilson, who lives in Atlanta, says she’s honest with her kids. She’ll ask whether they put on deodorant in the morning and encourages them to choose their own when they go to the store. ” ‘You go pick it out. It’s for you. It’s your special thing. You’ve got a special place in your bathroom you keep all this stuff,’ ” she’ll tell them. “That makes them want to use it more.”
Being proactive is a good thing, said Fisher, who recommends introducing children as they are coming of age to what is going to happen to their bodies so they’ll know what to expect.
And once you start noticing changes happening, you can ask your kids whether they notice them, too. “You know, often we don’t smell ourselves very well, so you might say, ‘Are you aware of what’s going on? So every now and then check your armpits,’ something like that. ‘What do you smell?’ ”
He also says parents can add more science to the conversation. They can tell kids that what’s actually happening is that skin cells are dying on their bodies, and when you have dead skin cells sticking to oils on the body, you get bacteria.
“The best part is, you say … ‘And you know what that smell really is? It’s bacteria poop,’ ” said Fisher, “And my daughter was like, ‘Oh, Dad, I didn’t need to know that.’ … A lot of kids are like that, but then they go, ‘Oh, wow.’ So then they realize why it’s not just that you smell. It’s that there’s a health issue that you have to be concerned about and be aware of as you grow older.”
Sometimes, kids just learn on their own
But even after the conversations, some kids might still be reluctant to accept their new reality, which may be partly motivated with wanting to defy their parents and not do what they suggest, said Fisher.
Some people need the social embarrassment to realize people are noticing, he said. “So you let them learn naturally. You give them enough room, and that’s kind of what I say. I give my daughter enough room to step in it and go, ‘How did that feel?’ ” he said.
Rodriguez, the mom of three, said that with her 14-year-old, and now her 11-year-old, she feels like she spends a few months when everything smells “just really rank” and she is constantly riding one of the boys about “being foul.”
“And then, all of a sudden you’re choking on Axe body spray and scraping gobs of hair gel off your bathroom sink,” she jokes. “The switch is just flipped (probably by some girl, gah!) and the ‘I don’t-want-to-stink-light’ is officially on. Parenting goal achieved.”
She started to talk with her boys about body changes in the fourth grade by giving them a book about boys’ bodies. She let them read it independently and then discusses it with them from time to time. “We try to focus on the positives, that they are going to get taller and stronger, and then we weave in some hygiene lessons as they come up,” she said.
Flick Wilson, the mom of twin teens, says she’s tried to be as open with her kids as possible, about everything from body changes to body hair to deepening voices, which is quite a contrast from the way she grew up.
“I think that as much as I loved my Catholic school upbringing, it was never a conversation you had, whether it was body changes or sexuality or you name it,” she said. “And so, I think for me, I’ve been very much like, ‘I want this not to be an anxiety-ridden conversation’ … and so we’ve kind of always talked about it.”
Any fun conversation starters on how to have the body change talk? Share them with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.
By Kelly Wallace, CNN