Affirm that the body is a good and special thing. Small children (infants and toddlers) touch themselves as they discover their bodies. They also often ask the names of different body parts. Tell them the names using appropriate language. When teaching your toddler about the nose and eyes, name the vulva or penis, as well. Use correct words and be matter-of-fact; this also communicates that their questions are welcome and important.
When babies discover their bodies, they also learn what feels good. Allow this discovery without pushing the baby’s hand from their genitals, making faces, or saying things like “don’t touch that” or “that’s dirty.” In this way, you can avoid giving early negative messages about the genitals. Young children who touch their genitals do it simply because it feels good, not because they are fantasizing about sexual relationships. We need to remember to take off the “adult glasses” and not overreact to children’s early genital exploration.
Teach them about private behavior
If your child is touching his or her genitals in public, make sure your child is aware of the behavior; acknowledge that it feels good but that such activity is to be done in private, and help your child identify “public” and “private” spaces. Naming the behavior is helpful; for example, “I see you are touching your vulva. I am sure that feels good to you. That’s something you enjoy in private, OK?” In this way, you communicate the precise behavior and limit to your child. It’s helpful to talk about this as simply as possible and without shaming. Remember, you want your child to know how his or her body works and what brings pleasure.
Sexuality can be a difficult or uncomfortable subject to talk about with your children, so they may not come to you with questions or concerns. But it does get easier with practice – for both you and your children. Talk with all of your children, regardless of gender or age. For example:
- Talk to young children about appreciating their bodies, what their bodies can do, how their bodies feel, and how to keep their bodies healthy.
- Pre-teens (ages 9-12) who are or will soon be going through puberty will begin to have conversations about the changes in their bodies and what to expect. Although many schools will teach basic human anatomy and the logistics of puberty, parents and adult caregivers can and should take the lead. Give information and impart your values while creating a safety net for learning (“You can ask me questions about any of this. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s all part of growing up.”).
- Pre-teens and teens will have sexual feelings. Research indicates that young people with little information about sexuality and sexual health may experiment more and at earlier ages than those who have more accurate information. Be prepared; your child and family do not need to pay the consequences of lack of information.
- Discuss the differences between love and lust. Help your children understand that self-esteem plays a vital role in managing these feelings responsibly.
- Discuss the positive feelings of intimacy that people can have without sexual intercourse. Getting emotionally close to someone – taking the risk of telling them one’s thoughts and feelings, with the hope these feelings will be returned – can be very frightening and/or very pleasing. Young people may need your support and help understanding this process, especially in their first romantic relationships.
- Discuss different healthy ways to express sexual feelings, including masturbation, noting that sexual intercourse is only one way to express such feelings.
- Have conversations about the importance of safe sex. Talking with young people about sex doesn’t mean you condone it any more than conversations about designated drivers condones underage drinking or drinking and driving. On the contrary – if you discuss values, reality, and consequences with your children, they are more likely to continue to come to you with questions and make better decisions.
These conversations may occur when many young people are trying to become more independent, so they may push you away or seem to pay little attention, but you are still critically important in their lives. If your conversations with your children balance messages about responsibility, healthy decision-making, and values with messages about the positive and pleasurable aspects of developing relationships, you can continue to have a close and caring relationship with them, which will support their maturation and healthy sexual development.
Don’t be afraid to use correct words
Using correct words (instead of “code” or vague words and messages) gives the message that body parts and their functions are natural. Using proper terminology helps do away with the idea that our bodies and sexuality are shameful, embarrassing, or bad.
If a young child repeats a sexual obscenity, parents and adult caregivers should explain what it means without being afraid to use the word. This can have several benefits:
- The child will know the word will not have power over you.
- The child will know no question or topic is “off limits.”
- By explaining the meaning of the obscenity with correct words, you are treating the subject of sex with respect.
Children who know the right terms will be able to better communicate to you their questions and concerns. If your child has a developmental disability or is more a visual learner, use pictures and other visual aids such as charts, a full body drawing, or an anatomically correct doll.
Give accurate, age-appropriate information. Discuss the changes happening in your child’s body (or why his or her brother’s voice is changing, an aunt’s pregnancy, etc.). Anticipate the next stage of their bodies’ development and discuss that, too, so that your children are prepared for future changes.