Front bottom, back bottom, doodle, wee wee, fanny, bum, privates, woo-hoo, tushy, penis, testicles, vagina. Is it any wonder our children can become confused when talking about those parts of the human body we consider to be ‘private’?
Although many parents find it awkward and embarrassing, children need to be provided with information about their bodies, gender, sexuality, feelings and relationships. It should be appropriate to their age and stage of development, and it also needs to be factually correct.
Why is it important?
Imagine how you’d feel if your child didn’t tell you when something happened to him that made him feel uncomfortable, because he feared he’d get in trouble or was embarrassed or ashamed because you taught him that it’s rude to talk about the private parts of his body. Sadly, this is one commonly cited reason for children not reporting sexual abuse. Take this awful scenario one step further and consider how you would feel if the perpetrator of a crime against your child was not convicted because in a court of law your child was unable to clearly articulate what happened to him as he didn’t know the correct words to use.
You may have grown up with a quick ‘birds and bees’ talk at the onset of puberty, but times have changed. The current recommendation from health and education professionals is that parents raise topics such as sexuality, gender and relationships regularly, so that everyone in the family feels comfortable talking together openly about all kinds of issues. In doing so, you are helping to protect your child from the likelihood of becoming a victim of sexual abuse.
How do I start to talk about body parts?
It’s a good idea to name all body parts correctly from a young age. An arm is an arm and a leg is a leg, just as a penis is a penis. For boys, use the word ‘penis’ initially and then add ‘scrotum’ and ‘testicles’ as they discover these parts of their body. For girls, ‘vulva’ is the correct term for the external area, the vagina is located internally. A naming game at bath time of all the body parts teaches children that all parts of the body are equally important.
Toddlers are often fascinated with the process of adults using the toilet. Accompanying you to the toilet is a big step towards them understanding the process of using it themselves.
And don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to having an audience! It is also normal for toddlers to enjoy being naked. Use this opportunity to begin to discuss privacy – what is appropriate at home versus being out in public.
Preschoolers can be very inquisitive. One strategy to use when they ask the hard questions, like “How did the baby get in your tummy?”, is to respond with a question, such as “How do you think the baby got in there?” This tells you what they already know and gives you time to compose your response.
Preschoolers also tend to be curious about the physical differences between boys and girls, and they may look at each other’s genitals and even engage in harmless touching. The best way to react to this type of play (think ‘doctors and nurses’), is to calmly tell them that their bodies are private and that we keep our clothes on when we’re playing with friends. Casually ask them to tell you about the game if you want to gather more information about what they’ve been doing.
A touchy subject
Teaching children about types of touch – loving, friendly, helpful, hurtful – helps them learn what is appropriate and what is not. Children need to know they have the right to say ‘no’ when they feel uncomfortable or unhappy about touching or being touched. You can begin to instill this from an early age by not forcing them to hug or kiss friends or relatives if they don’t want to.
It is not uncommon for young children to hold, rub or stroke their genitals and they usually do it out of natural curiosity, as a comfort or because it feels good. It does not physically harm the child or make them more likely to be sexually promiscuous. However, if an adult they trust reacts to this behaviour dirty or ashamed, this may cause some emotional scarring.
The best response from parents is to simply suggest that this type of touching is for times when they are in private, not in public. If your child appears to masturbate as a way of comforting himself, you could suggest another strategy, such as a hug, to help him feel less anxious.
Keeping children safe
Self-protection programs in childcare centres and schools have replaced the ‘Stranger Danger’ approach to teaching children about keeping themselves safe. Self-protection programs teach children what is private, what behaviour is acceptable and how to respond to inappropriate overtures without fear of consequences for telling the truth. Parents can easily begin this process at home with their own children by:
❋ Talking about the fact that everybody has the right to feel safe all the time and what it actually feels like to be safe
❋ Teaching children how to identify and express their feelings openly and without fear of reprisal
❋ Showing children how to recognise warning signs of fear, such as butterflies in your tummy, crying or shaking
❋ Teaching preschoolers the ‘NO, GO, TELL’ process. ‘NO’ means saying ‘no’ with confidence when someone is acting in a way they do not like, ‘GO’ is removing themselves from the situation and ‘TELL’ is telling an appropriate adult what has happened
❋ Helping preschoolers identify adults they can trust and talk to whenever they are upset or afraid.
How did you tackle this issue of discussing private parts with your child? Discuss in our Forum