Talking to our kids about our bodies and sexuality is a source of stress for many parents. How our own parents spoke about sexuality, our own experiences, and having different experiences and background from our partner makes this topic layered and complex.
But this really is an area where how we deliver this information can have a huge impact on our children and how they relate to their own sexuality in the future. I encourage parents to feel empowered that sharing this information is a privilege and cultivating an openness with our children where they know they can always come to us for reliable and accurate information is a gift only we as parents can give our kids. This has become even more crucial today when children are often exposed to sexual material on devices and the internet at younger and younger ages.
Below are some talking points for children of preschool age and a discussion of normal behaviors:
Developing and cultivating a healthy relationship with our bodies begins at birth. At 18 months of age children should be able to identify body parts and by 36 months children should be able to identify their gender. The messages we communicate to small children our bodies and their bodies can lay the foundation for a healthy approach to sexuality. Short, age appropriate answers to developmentally appropriate curiosity about bodies lets children know that their parents are always there to answer their questions.
- Use correct names of body parts – it is important for children to understand what the names of their parts are and identify them by the correct name. It is also developmentally normal for children to ask why siblings or parents may have different parts and to identify those parts when they see them.
- Touching body parts/masturbation – It is normal for preschool age children to touch their genitals in order to explore and sometimes for pleasure. What needs to be emphasized to them is that this is normal but private behavior – ok to do — but should be in their bedroom or bathroom — not in the living room or in front of other people. Place this in context of other (or there are) activities we do not do in front of others such as bathing, getting dressed, or going to the bathroom. This is actually a great time to introduce the concept of modesty to children – activities or speech that are private vs public.
- Showing genitals to other children and wanting to see parents’ bodies: It is normal for children to occasionally show each other their genitals and this can be part of normal play. Concerning play would be if there is excessive touching or overt sexual play tied to this experience. Furthermore children may be very curious to see their parents’ adult bodies. They may ask why there is hair in certain places when they do not have hair or what breasts are. These are all opportunities to discuss with children what adult bodies look like and how their bodies will change as they get older. Some parents do not like their children to see them naked and that is understandable (often this is influenced by the practices of the home in which the parents were raised) but be careful not to use language that their curiosity is bad or forbidden.
- “Bathroom talk” – once children understand that these body parties are private they may try to stretch some boundaries by using those words in public or just with their family. Stretching boundaries is a normal part of the preschool stage and is an expression of their development of their own self. Children should certainly be told when it is appropriate to use those words but make sure you communicate that it is an issue of context (when the word is being used) and not that there is something inherently wrong with thinking or talking about private body parts.
- Good touch/bad touch – by age three parents should be discussing with children the difference between good touch and bad touch. It should be emphasized that only parents or other selected caregivers can help a child wipe or change their clothes (like teachers or babysitters). Even the pediatrician should ask the child and parent’s permission before they examine your child’s genitals. In my office I very clearly state “ I am now going to examine your private area do I have your permission to look? “ or “ I am only allowed to do this because you and your parent(s) have given me permission to look and they are in the room with me”. Parents and caregivers also have to respect children’s cues about touch and privacy and if a child requests privacy (for example while getting dressed or showering) or asks not be hugged or tickled those boundaries should be respected.
- Where do babies come from? Children will be naturally curious how a baby is placed inside another person and how the baby comes out. Simple explanations are best like “ mommies have a special hole called a vagiana for the baby to come from. It gets bigger when the baby is ready to come out.” Reassure your preschooler that these are great questions and show that you are always there to answer and discuss these types of questions.
Warning signs: If a preschool child displays overt sexual behaviors like touching themselves frequently or touching others or engaging in sexual play this may be a sign of abuse. Please make an appointment with your pediatrician to discuss this type of behavior.
Striking a balance with our children that certain body parts and some bodily functions (like peeing and popping) are private, does not equate them with being disgusting or dirty. The language we use to name body parts, our willingness to engage in natural curiosity about the amazing bodies and its abilities that Hashem created sets the tone for a life-long parent-child relationship centered around open communication and sharing.