It’s easy for a parent to get squeamish about issues connected to their kid’s genitals. That’s because parents are adults who tote around the inescapable baggage of social expectations about sexual behavior. For adults, genitals aren’t just another body part; they are a source of pleasure, pride, and often shame. For a kid, a vulva or a penis isn’t embarrassing, shameful, or funny unless someone has taught them otherwise.
Parents have an extremely difficult time not projecting their own adult knowledge onto kids just starting to figure out how everything works. Aside from being patently unhelpful, that adult projection can become downright damaging. What follows are the best tips for supporting a kid exploring the wonders of their genitals.
Use the Right Terms
There are a positively insane number of euphemisms for the penis and the vulva (often referred, falsely, as the vagina). These puritanical attempts to make reproductive organs sound benign and cutesy are more damaging than just calling things by their names. “Wee wee” or “no no” or “hooha” or “dinky” teaches a child that part of their body is somehow unspeakable. It’s as if a penis or vulva is the Voldemort of their anatomy. That’s a great way to kick off a sense of shame around genitals.
But, more than shame, euphemisms can be downright dangerous. The unfortunate truth is that some children are molested or touched inappropriately. When that happens, it’s critical that the children have the appropriate language to tell adults what happened or respond when questioned.
Ignore Casual Touching and Masturbation
Seeing another person touching themselves out in the open is shocking because it runs directly counter to social norms. No wonder a parent’s first response to seeing a kid rummaging in their drawers is one of shock and dismay. But there’s a great deal to be said about a kid’s motive.
Children aren’t touching themselves to be lewd and shocking. They touch themselves because they are discovering that touching their penis or vulva feels different than touching their toe or their earlobe. Because their genitals are wired directly to their central nervous system that sensation is pretty darn pleasurable.
A parent who responds to the exploration with shock or shaming is telling their kid there is something particularly unique, fascinating, or different about that part of their body. That’s a great way to calcify curiosity and increase, rather than decrease, the exploration. The best way to deal with genital exploration in toddler-aged kids is to simply ignore it. That’s largely because they’ll be unable to understand the concept of privacy until around 5 or 6-years-old. At that time parents can direct kids to a private place.
Should the touching occur in public, it could be simply due to an urgency to urinate. Ask about that first. If that’s not the issue, parents should give their kids something else to hold. Again, keeping an even keel and level head is key.
Reducing Shame Connected to Genital Issues
- Even before your child learns how to talk, call the penis and vulva by their correct names. Euphemisms suggest these parts are shameful.
- Until age 5 or 6, children have no concept of what’s private. Ignore genital touching at home until then.
- Stress to prepubescents that genitals have a specific function: peeing. It’s no different or special in use than any other part of the body, like eyes or hands.
- The only time “playing doctor” might warrant concern is when it is overtly sexual, occurring in kids older than 5th grade or happening between an older and younger child.
- Teaching consent is less about sex and more about honoring a child’s physical boundaries and respecting their wishes not to be kissed, touched, or hugged.
If parents want to avoid passing shame to their kids, it’s time to normalize genitals. A good way to do this is to express to a kid that those body parts have a function just like any other body part. But keep it dead simple: eyes are for seeing, ears are for hearing, feet are for running and walking, and genitals are for peeing. And just like we put shoes on feet and gloves on hands, we cover genitals to protect them and keep them safe. There’s no need to bring either birds or bees into the equation.
Playing Doctor is Typical
Just as kids will want to explore their own bodies, they’ll be compelled to explore the bodies of their peers. So just as they’ll want to point out that their noses or skin color are different, they’ll want to understand if anything else is different too.
Yes, it’s easy to feel shocked when discovering a couple kids who are stripped down and working out their differences. But the best reaction is one that isn’t angry or overly concerned. It’s as simple as saying to a curious visiting kid: “We have a house rule that we keep our clothes on when we have visitors, so please dress.”
Parents can follow up later by asking if their kid has questions about their friends, or their own body (because obviously, they do). Just keep the answers simple and level-headed.
There are times when concern is warranted. Little kids who are caught behaving in explicitly and obviously sexual ways could be showing a symptom of sexual abuse. Also, by the fifth grade, the motive for “doctor” play is more likely sexual than explorative. Finally, if older children are found playing doctor with younger or less intellectually developed children, parents need to make sure no abuse is taking place.
Teaching Consent Isn’t About Sex
A parent can easily help a kid understand consent without ever once broaching the subject of sex. Because of this, understanding consent can begin at a very early age. At its core, consent is about respecting boundaries. Parents can instill this sense of respect in boundaries by simply saying “no” to their child. The fact is that some things are off limits. And those things might be drawers or precious tchotchkes, to begin with.
As a kid ages, the boundaries can become physical ones. If a parent doesn’t want a child to touch them, they should say so. But at the same time, parents need to respect their child’s own boundaries when they say they do not want to be kissed, hugged, or touched. Even if that refusal comes while grandma is visiting. A parent cannot expect to raise a child who respects another person’s boundaries if their kid doesn’t feel like they have control over their own body.