As parents, we’re our children’s first teachers in virtually every subject. In a short time, however, their schoolteachers will outpace us in teaching them math, music, art, science and writing. (And thank goodness for that!)
But when it comes to educating our kids about their bodies, we are more or less on our own. Or rather, we are competing with what they learn from their own explorations, and from the information (or misinformation as the case may be) gleaned from books, the culture around them, and their peers, even preschool peers. There is no stopping them from being curious about how bodies work and from absorbing every fragment of knowledge they come across -- that is just how kids learn at this age. If you are the parent of a little one, you know that there is no escaping the frank (and frankly hilarious) questions or the obvious physical expressions of curiosity: our kids love to be naked, to touch and explore themselves and each other, all with the utmost enthusiasm, joy and wonder.
Until the days of sex ed class arrive (and that’s an eternity away -- our little ones want answers now!), the best help for parents comes in the form of a number of wise parenting books. At The Savvy Source, we rely particularly on the ideas and (literally) scripts in a vital chapter on “Learning About Bodies” in Laura Davis and Janis Keysar’s Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, in Betsy Brown Braun’s Just Tell Me What to Say, and Deborah Haffner’s invaluable From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children.
From these wise and very detailed accounts, we have extracted five key principles to keep in mind as all of the expected and unexpected manifestations of our children’s interest in bodies arise. Parenting is all about thinking on our feet, and that’s why it’s so helpful to have a few touchstone ideas at our disposal when the puzzling questions and behaviors come our way, as they inevitably do!
The experts all agree: the way in which we talk about our children’s bodies (and for that matter our own and other people’s) really makes a difference. Generally speaking, we do our best to give our kids a wide vocabulary so that they can express themselves as precisely as possible on all manner of subjects. The topic of bodies and all their parts and functions should be no different. Preschoolers are happy to wield terms like “wee wee” and “pee pee,” but why should they be reduced to baby talk about their own bodies when they already have a complex and wide ranging vocabulary for everything else? So even though it may make you squirm at first, introduce them as early as possible to the correct anatomical lexicon. Using real words shows real respect for this important aspect of the body and self. And as a bonus, you’ll get to enjoy all of the hilarious mispronunciations….
Private vs. public: a useful concept
One of the most confounding aspects of this topic is how to teach young children appropriate social behavior without inducing shame. Anyone with a preschooler on their hands has witnessed their intermittent bouts of intense interest in bodily functions and pleasures, and plain old “potty talk.” When it goes on in the bosom of the family, it’s all well and good and often quite funny. But if you ever happen to have friends or grandparents over, or dare to venture out in public during one of these phases, a conundrum presents itself: undergo embarrassment and disapproving glares or risk shaming your child under stressful circumstances. Rather than be caught off-guard in this way and say something to your child that you may later regret, it can be useful to introduce from early on the concepts of privacy and private parts and behaviors. To explain in a calm, supportive tone that going to the bathroom or touching one’s genitals or potty talk are “private” activities is far more helpful to a child than off-the-cuff reprimands with no clear explanation. Understanding the concept of privacy also gives your child a way to rebuff the attentions of overzealous “doctors” among their peers.
Figuring out family norms
If that all sounds challenging enough, add in the fact that you and your partner may have very different ideas about this entire subject stemming from your own different family backgrounds. How we talk about bodies, and how we feel about nudity and various kinds of physical play can be sensitive subjects. As our babies grow into toddlers and kids, it is wise for parents to talk about what kinds of norms and values they envision for their own children and family. We need to be able to talk openly to our partners about these things so that we can speak clearly and reassuringly to our kids.
Teaching by example
The most important thing we want for our kids to get out of all of this is to feel confident and comfortable in their own skin. And the very best way to get there is to show them by example how we care for and respect our own bodies. Though most of us have our own insecurities about our bodies, it’s important if at all possible to avoid talk of diets and other negative expressions about body image around our kids. They pick up on everything, and that’s not a message we want them to hear! Rather, we want to teach by example how to eat well, exercise and enjoy the outdoors, get enough rest, and express affection lovingly and respectfully.
Meeting our kids at their own level
One of the great myths of parenting is that a day (a distant day) will come when it is “time to have the talk.” Yet in fact that “talk” is better thought of as an ongoing conversation with our kids that can begin as soon as they start asking questions. What makes this much easier than we might imagine is that small children tend to lead the way. They know what they want to know. So when your child asks a question, the best thing to do is really listen. How much does she understand already? What is the next piece of information that she is wondering about? How much information will satisfy her curiosity without confusing or overwhelming? That is the talk, the conversational back and forth that really matters -- and that you and your child can take turns leading over the years ahead, at her pace.
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