Anybody with a penis knows that it sometimes feels as if it has a mind of its own. Penises shrink and grow at inopportune or confusing times. They get tender. They get kinda sweaty sometimes. They come in cut and uncut varieties. Grown men largely take this in stride—that’s a lie, but let’s move on—but, for little boys, the apparent autonomy of their penis can be terrifying. This is why parents need to explain how the old bait and tackle work. This can be daunting. Still, there’s a way to keep anxiety at bay: Little kids aren’t gonna make it weird. Only adults make it weird.
“I always tell parents that they are the one that makes it difficult,” says Stacey Honowitz, supervisor of the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit for the Florida State Attorney’s office and author of Genius With a Penis, Don’t Touch, adding that’s it’s critical parents don’t try to ease their way using euphemisms. A penis by any other name is a taboo, and taboos stand between kids and learning. That ultimately can place a child in danger. A child who is uncomfortable talking about their genitalia will be uncomfortable telling adults if they’ve been touched inappropriately by another person. Honowitz has seen from her work that using non-anatomical terms for genitals can even complicate investigations into abuse. This isn’t just a parenting tip, it’s a safety issue.
Honowitz suggests that parents should stress that penises have a specific function: peeing. She offer’s a script of sorts to help parents explain. “Just like you use your head to think, and you use your fingers to grab pencils and your feet to walk, you use your penis to go to the bathroom,” Honowitz says. “That makes it no different or special than any other part of the body, because every body part is special.”
The problem for parents is that the most important use for genitals shifts dramatically when a person reaches puberty. Suddenly, those parts are for pleasure and procreation rather than excretion. Kids don’t have that context. So any embarrassment or shame in discussing a son’s penis is derived from the world that is—and will remain for at least a decade—foreign to them. Conversations with children about their bodies are best had within the context of their reality, which is largely sexless and certainly innocent.
Recognizing the penis as an organ, with bodily functions as distinct as an eye or a heart, will also make the conversations regarding genitals much easier. That’s particularly true when it comes to those frightening or curiosity inducing 4-year-old erections according to Honowitz. Because kids understand that sometimes body parts do unexpected things. An arm might fall asleep and tingle, for instance. Spasms in the diaphragm might cause hiccups. These are things that happen without a kid thinking about them. Erections outside of sexual attraction are pretty much the same.
The Four-Pronged Approach to Explaining Penises
- Avoid using euphemisms in conversations with your child. Call a penis what it is: a penis.
- Stress to prepubescents that penises have a specific function: peeing. It’s no different or special in use than any other part of the body, like eyes or hands.
- Equate covering penises with protection, not shame. Teach children that having and talking about penises is nothing to be ashamed of.
- Remind a son that what their penis is doing is completely normal, whether it’s sensitivity or unexpected erections, and that this happens to fathers, too.
“Sometimes when we’re looking at something our eye starts twitching on its own. We didn’t control it,” Honowitz recommends pointing out. “And sometimes our penis does other things too. Sometimes if you go to the bathroom and you notice your penis is bigger than it normally is that’s just your body doing other things, just like if your eye twitches.”
True, a penis is unlike most other body parts in that it, much like a vulva, is expected to be covered. A savvy or smart-ass kid will be happy to point this distinction out. But it’s not necessary to equate the covering with shame. Because covering genitals is about protection. After all, they are a sensitive and important part of the body. People wear sunglasses to protect their eyes. They wear shoes and gloves to protect their feet and hands. So, it’s important to keep a penis covered to protect it too.
If a kid is still fearful, anxious, or curious about what their penis is doing, dads can step in and offer some camaraderie. Telling a son that what their penis is doing is completely normal and that it happens to fathers too, is good reassurance. So is reminding them that even a big guy like their father has to protect his penis by keeping it covered. From there it’s just letting them know that if they relax everything will go back to the way it was in due time.
“Add, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’” Honowitz says. “That’s the most important thing. They don’t have to be scared.”