It was a grade-six birthday party and, when I came to pick my son up, there were about eight boys in the back room, horsing around and watching the end of a movie. I stuck my head in the door and was hit with a reek that was beyond B.O. — some kind of hormonal toxic waste, perhaps.
Body odour is often the earliest sign of puberty, says paediatrician Miriam Kaufman, an adolescent health specialist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. And if it shocks parents that their sweet child can suddenly be so sour, says Kaufman, preteens themselves may not even notice it.
But for others, being around a person who smells bad is unpleasant. And in our culture, smelling bad is also a social embarrassment — embarrassing to realize about oneself, and embarrassing to point out. Because we want to spare our child the experience of having the wrong person point it out — the boy she really likes, for example, or the class bully — we feel, quite rightly, that it’s our job. But how?
Casually and tactfully, advises Kim Martyn, a sexual health educator with Toronto Public Health and co-author of the Changes in You and Me puberty books for boys and girls.
“You just have to be direct. It’s not going to go away,” she says. “You want to broach this early on before someone says something mean at school and it becomes a big deal. So choose an appropriate time when you’re not stressed, the kid’s not stressed, and say something like ‘I’ve noticed you have a stronger smell these days — you know that’s part of what happens when you start puberty. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that?’” Martyn suggests the word stronger rather than bad: “We don’t want kids to feel bad about anything that happens to their body or comes from their body. I always tell kids, it’s not the actual sweat that smells, it’s the bacteria that grows in the sweat.”
At this point kids often jump to the conclusion of deodorant, but both Kaufman and Martyn point out that deodorant without soap and water is not going to do the job. So you want to steer kids first towards washing — and more than just every few days, like he did when he was younger. Give him specifics — he’ll need to bathe when it’s hot, if there’s gym or when he’s been nervous, for instance. Then you can move on to “And we can go to the store and check out deodorants.”
Girls and boys may both be blissfully unaware that they have B.O., says Martyn, but (sorry, guys) it’s more often boys who don’t really care. “Girls will usually do something about it — in fact, you want to bring it up casually so they don’t go overboard. Boys — sometimes you have to do a follow-up,” she says, “like ‘Whah, how about a bath tonight?’”
If they aren’t keen on showering that often, suggests Kaufman, you can encourage them to just wash under their arms every morning or before they head out to that party. “A quick fix is to wipe under the arms with one of the gel alcohol washes that people were carrying around during SARS,” she suggests. “That will kill the bacteria.” And if all your suggestions fall on deaf ears? “Then the natural consequence is they will hear about it from other people,” says Martyn.
Scents and Sensibility
Drowning out body odour with perfume doesn’t work any better now than it did for the Elizabethans, but there are other reasons to teach kids to go easy on the cologne. “Kids need to know that just as some people have peanut allergies, there are a lot of people with environmental allergies to artificial scents,” suggests sexual health educator Kim Martyn. So it’s not a great thing to wear to school or other public places.