A mother received an awkward email from her son’s kindergarten teacher last fall. Her 6-year-old and his friends had been caught unzipping their pants and flashing each other during lunch. The behavior was not unusual for his age, the teacher wrote, but it was inappropriate at school. She had spoken with him, and she hoped the parents could address it at home, too.
Now I’m not saying that mother was me. (I’m also not saying it’s not me.) but I can personally attest to the difficulty of handling this kind of situation as a parent.
The list of body behavior that makes parents uncomfortable is long. It’s not uncommon to see little ones get naked in public, or stick their hands down their pants, or in this case, compare penises in the school cafeteria — and then, all worked up by the event, shout out words like “penis” and “butt,” disrupting afternoon lessons. Did I forget to mention that part? And while this may be happening less in public with the pandemic, there’s plenty of body curiosity at home that can give parents pause.
But as the teacher said, all of this behavior is totally age-appropriate. Yet school rules must be followed, and limits must be set. So how do we do that while communicating that body curiosity is healthy and normal? How do we talk to our kids about body boundaries without making them feel ashamed?
Affirm body curiosity, don’t shame
The body is a child’s first classroom, says Deborah Roffman, a human sexuality educator, consultant and author of “Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ ‘Go To’ Person About Sex.” The sounds that bodies make and the stuff that comes out of them — they find it all “endlessly fascinating,” she said.
It’s perfectly natural for infants and toddlers to explore their genitals, especially as diapers come off and these parts are more accessible. By age 4 or 5, this behavior can become more intentional, Ms. Roffman said, and it is all “normal, expected and entirely harmless.”
Talking with young children about their bodies and sexuality paves the way for open communication as they get older, said Tanya Coakley, Ph.D., a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who has studied how parents communicate with their children about sex, with a focus on African-American fathers and sons. Those talks will positively influence children’s comfort with their bodies and the likelihood they will come to their parents with questions later on. Research analyzed by Dr. Coakley and co-author Schenita D. Randolph, Ph.D., of the Duke University School of Nursing, also showed that these conversations ultimately lower the chances of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and other risky sexual behaviors.
“What’s essential is to have the lines of communication open, where it’s honest, nonjudgmental and nurturing,” Dr. Coakley said.
There are many motivations and impulses at play when kids touch themselves or shed their clothes in public. Touching genitals can feel pleasurable or soothing, Ms. Roffman said. Sometimes kids get naked because they’re having fun; other times they’re testing limits. But all of it is rooted in healthy exploration. What sets a child up for shame, she said, is experiencing good feelings while doing something they’ve been told is bad.
Shame is a powerful emotion, and it can damage how children view themselves and their bodies, she said. “It’s also very confusing when they’re not sure what it was they did that was so wrong. They’re left with a kind of diffuse anxiety about it.”
Saleema Noon, a sexual health educator in Vancouver, and author of the book, “Talk Sex Today: What Kids Need to Know and How Adults can Teach Them,” added, “We want kids to learn from a young age that sexual feelings are healthy. If they’re exploring their genitals, and they get the feeling from those around them that what they’re doing is bad or dirty, it’s going to impact them in a negative way, and they’re going to take that forward into their relationships.”
Use the correct words for body parts
Language can either empower children or cripple their ability to communicate, Roffman said. Just as we need to know the difference between the face and the throat, young girls should know the difference between the vulva and the vagina. Likewise, we should avoid associating silly or slang words with body parts or using avoidance words like “privates,” she said.
“A teacher might hesitate to say ‘penis’,” Ms. Roffman said. “And wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if we didn’t hesitate? These are just body parts, not second-class body parts.”
Set boundaries on time and place
Setting limits should go hand in hand with positively affirming the body and behavior, Ms. Roffman said. If a child is touching his genitals in a public place, you might say, “I know that feels good to you. The body is good, and it brings good feelings. And if you look around, you’ll see people don’t touch their genitals around other people. But you can do that in your bedroom or in the bathroom anytime you want” or “I know it’s fun to get naked, but in school, we keep our clothes on while we play.”
Games, like “playing doctor,” stem from children’s innate curiosity about their bodies, and parents shouldn’t worry, as long as the children are about the same age and neither is pressuring the other, Ms. Roffman said. In fact, she said, adults would do well to respect the children’s curiosity and walk away. But if it occurs during a playdate and you’re not sure of the other family’s view, another option is to redirect the kids to a different activity and state a clear limit: “When we have friends over, we keep our clothes on.” (It helps if you’ve set this rule ahead of time.)
Noon, however, said it’s best to calmly put a stop to the game. “What my experience tells me is that it’s best to teach these boundaries in a very clear way when they’re young, so that they’re not misunderstood.” Then check in with the kids later to acknowledge their healthy curiosity and make sure they know they’re not in trouble, Noon advised.
Such encounters can also be an opportunity to teach our kids about consent, she added. “We need to teach our kids the word, ‘No.’ And that they’re the boss of their bodies.”
Let children know when touch by others is not OK
As these talks about the body become a habit, it becomes easier to talk with kids about body behavior that’s not appropriate. One in four girls and one in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse at some point in childhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And age 5 is a good time to start addressing unwanted touch, said Dr. Coakley, who began her career working in child welfare.
There are a few messages you want to get across in these conversations, she said. Let them know that there’s touch that’s OK — a parent or another caregiver giving a child a bath or changing a diaper, or a doctor doing an exam, for example; and touch that isn’t OK.
“Unless it’s for a reason we talked about, it’s not OK for an older person to touch your penis or vulva or mouth,” you might say. And, “If someone touches or looks at you in a way that doesn’t feel right, tell another adult right away.”
Also, Dr. Coakley said, make it clear to your child that an adult should never ask them to keep a secret. Prevent Child Abuse America has more information on this, along with non-touching offenses that constitute abuse, such as showing a child pornography, and how parents can protect their children and educate themselves.
Practice having the conversation beforehand
These are all subjects that make parents anxious, which can cloud common sense. In having these conversations, Dr. Coakley suggests role playing the dialogue ahead of time with a partner or a friend, noticing not just your word choice, but also your body language and tone. And if you’re not comfortable saying the words “penis,” “scrotum,” “vagina” or “vulva,” practice. The more you say them, the easier it gets.
While it’s typically mothers who broach this subject with their kids, fathers have tremendous value to add, said Natasha Cabrera, Ph.D., a professor of human development at the University of Maryland who specializes in cultural and ethnic differences in parenting behaviors. Men tend to be more blunt and direct, she said, and more likely to provide information without censoring, all of which children find refreshing.
And the best way to meet the curiosity that drives all of this body behavior is with information, Cabrera said. Read a book with your kid that shows pictures of body parts and their systems, for example.
So when things come up, take a deep breath, and lean on honesty and facts.
Not long after that 6-year-old showed his penis to his friends at school, his mother found him comparing his genitals with his little sister in the bathtub. This mom opted to freak out at the sight, then have a hushed conversation her spouse in the next room and then separate the children, muttering something about “too much curiosity.”
But parents could also take a beat and ask themselves: Is there a power dynamic going on? Is one child pressuring the other? Are they both having fun? It may be that our worries as parents have less to do with our children’s behavior and more about how we’ve been conditioned to respond to it. And maybe what the children were doing wasn’t so bad. In fact, maybe, it was a perfectly healthy way for them to learn.
As Roffman put it, “If you take the sex part out, you get your common sense back.”
They’re just body parts, after all.
Jenny Marder is a senior science writer for NASA and a freelance journalist. She was formerly digital managing editor for the PBS NewsHour. You can find her on Twitter at @jennymarder.