At some point in your young son’s life, he will accompany you for the first time into a locker room. The experience won’t be particularly noteworthy for you because you’re a grown man who’s been to a pool or a gym or experienced summer camp or gym class or life on Earth, which sometimes involves lockers, in general. But, for your son, it has the potential to be awkward or downright frightening to suddenly be surrounded by strange men in various degrees of undress if you haven’t had a basic conversation with him about human bodies. Fortunately, that conversation is easily had and easily understood by your toddler, who can process and handle more than you might think. Unfortunately, that conversation might make you feel weird. But it’s only weird if you make it weird.
Think of the locker room as a teaching opportunity — a classroom for casual nudity, healthy body image, and sexual understanding. “When you boil it down, it’s a discussion about body parts. It’s really easy,” 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. “It comes down to logic and common sense. It’s when you hide it, when you shelter kids from things, that they become unaware and you run into problems.” Still, like any good lesson, some prep-work is needed to drive it home.
Preparing kids for the locker room starts with talking about penises and vaginas. Those conversations should feature anatomically correct words, not euphemisms, and can start as early as age three. “Whenever you start teaching them about their body parts — when they start saying ‘There’s my nose, there’s my elbow’ — that’s how you get into the private parts,” Honowitz says. “You also want to talk about the fact that every boy and every man has that same private part of their body, but in boys it’s smaller and it changes and grows as boys get older and become men.”
As boys leave the toddler phase and get a little bit older, you’ll employ the same technique of logic and forthrightness to layer on additional important details and nuances. Either that, or you’re going to end up fielding a lot of uncomfortable questions in public restrooms.
“Talk about the fact that we all come in different shapes and sizes and that body shaming is a form of bullying. You shouldn’t shame someone for what their body looks like and the same holds true for anybody’s private parts,” Honowitz says. The other piece of the conversation, she notes, is the idea that each person’s private parts are theirs alone. “You never want anybody to make you feel uncomfortable, whether they make a comment, try to touch you, or try to make you touch them. If they do, that is something you have to report.” It might seem awkward, but kids are remarkably perceptive and will understand.
Once you’ve had those basic anatomy conversations, set aside some time to talk with your son when that first locker room experience is nigh. Using the same plain, logical language as before, explain what the locker room is, why it exists, and what you do in there. “Tell them, ‘This place is designated for changing and you might see someone else’s privates. We don’t do that on the outside, in public, but in this place, it’s allowed,’” says Honowitz. It’s important to also remind your kid that the rules of privacy and body shaming apply equally inside and outside the locker room. They would not comment on other peoples’ bodies outside of the locker room and they shouldn’t comment inside the locker room either.
It might also be worth noting that Barbicide is a bad thing to drink and that locks aren’t toys. But those are conversations you can also have in front of towel-wearing men.
“Using a locker room is an activity that’s going to start early and go on for the rest of their lives,” Honowitz says. “As long as they know about their privates and they know the parameters — we all have them, some people’s look different than others’, we don’t make fun, and we know no one can touch us and we can’t touch them — you’re going to be fine. It’s not going to be scary.”