How does your typical nine-year-old boy react to the sight of a female classmate who towers over him and is sprouting breasts? Many boys may barely notice, so immersed are they in soccer, video games and other pleasures of the so-called latency period--the grade-school years when youngsters pay little heed to the opposite sex. "Boys of that age tend to regard girls almost like members of a different species," says Dr. Glenn Elliott, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. "They really don't have much concept of sex."
But in the absence of studies about how boys may respond, there is plenty of informed speculation--gleaned partly from clinical impressions--that at least some boys may be startled and perhaps even freaked out by the sexual changes that their precocious female classmates have begun to evince. "Remember junior high," says Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, "where the girls were all five inches taller than the boys and starting to have some sexual development, while the boys had squeaky voices and looked totally young? That difference is further underscored if girls start having puberty at 9."
Some prepubescent boys may taunt and tease girls in a form of youthful sexual harassment that covers up any discomfort they feel. "It's kind of stimulating and disorienting to have these girls be so changed," says psychologist Michael Thompson, the author of Speaking of Boys and co-author of Raising Cain. "The boys may often react in clumsy, immature and basically clueless ways."
Some boys may be experiencing early puberty themselves. While the evidence remains sketchy and controversial, researchers have found markers of approaching sexual maturity, such as enlargement of testicles, in boys younger than 10. But these developments are not as visible as a girl's broadening hips and budding breasts. And until boys experience their growth spurt, which typically begins at about age 13, many will have to look up to girls their age who are larger and stronger than they are.
Boys may continue to taunt girls in middle school, when the young males' raging hormones really start to kick in. By then, many boys may despair of ever catching up with their more physically and socially advanced female peers. And their insecurity may be heightened by the fact that some girls have already begun to look forward to high school and the chance to meet "real boys"--as opposed to those gawky dweebs in the next seats.
Experts say adults can help allay boyish fears by explaining that girls naturally mature faster. "Boys have to be made to feel O.K. about their development and their bodies," Thompson says. "They shouldn't be shamed for being immature." If people come to believe that boys will never grow up, he adds, "that prophecy will be fulfilled."
--By John Greenwald