As a father of a 4- and 7-year-old, it's safe to say I've acquired more than two cents' worth of wisdom from the on-the-job training that is parenting. One area that I'm passionate about is in the realm of shaking the shame and fear of talking with your little ones about their bodies.
I'll give you some context by starting with one of my early moments of truth. The scene is bath time during the early toddler years, and I am feeling excited about finally being past the stage of having to know when to pluck my son, with the speed of a lightning bolt, from the tub before little turds plop their way out leading to the enactment of DEFCON #2 cleaning protocol… but that's another blog for another day. I am pumped up about getting to the point of teaching my son life skills and watching his autonomy develop. He and I are working through the naming of his body parts as he goes through the list of washing them. He names and washes his arms and his hands. He's calling out his legs, toes, and knees. He likes to skip his neck and face, of which I remind him. So far so good, I'm thinking to myself, but now it's time to see how he handles his genitals. "What else do you need to wash?" I throw out there. He smiles proudly and starts scrubbing away! Except he's not scrubbing his private parts. He's scrubbing his chest. "What body part are you scrubbing now?" I ask, to keep the learning opportunity flowing. "My nickels!" He says slyly with a big cheesy grin. He made it back around to and named his penis and anus with ease, but on this day he learned about his nipples.
One of the many conversations parents know they will have with their little ones is about body awareness. Figuring out the right time to start is what gives parents the dreads. The two most common reactions by parents of toddlers and early elementary aged children that I hear are, "Oh no! I can't believe he is touching himself this early!" Or, "She had to pick up this language from other kids." The fact is, as soon as your child is born, he or she has some level of self-awareness of his or her own body and is curious about it. They begin to put their fingers and toes in their mouth and touch your body parts without hesitation. So where does all of the shame about the body come from? The answer can be many factors, one of which is you. That is also the good news though. Understanding that you as a parent are a contributor means understanding that you have the ability to influence your children. The biggest driver of shame is fear: fear of rejection, fear of disappointment, and fear of abandonment. You feel it. They feel it too. The key to shaking shame is being able to feel confident about what is natural and eliminate topics from being taboo by creating a safe environment for you and your child to talk. Also… talk early and often. When topics of body awareness and sexual health become safe to approach for you as a family, your relationship will become more trusting, open, and more likely to allow the most critical of talks to happen rather than be avoided.
This surely sounds great in theory, but I know how hard it can be when these situations land in your lap. My son was only three years old when I noticed during a different bath-time session that he was curious about and pulling on his penis. I knew that my reaction would set the tone for all future conversations like these. I asked him, "What do you think about that, buddy?" Asking open-ended questions is a simple and amazingly effective communication tool. Not only does it give you time to figure out your own emotions and next steps, it gives your child a voice and validates that what they feel matters. Showing natural curiosity is also important as it puts you and the child at the same level and creates an environment of comfort for asking questions. He responded with a shrug and a worried look. I followed up with, "Does your penis look funny to you?" He responded with a bit of worry in his voice saying, "It's too long." I've heard from many parents about their shock and how unprepared they felt for how early their sons can experience erections, which can start as an infant. I let him know that nothing was wrong with him and that it is normal for a penis to change in size and get little and big and little again. He was not being deviant or sexualizing this experience. He was curious and a little worried. By not making this topic forbidden or taboo, and by not shaming him, I was able to educate him and build trust so he will come to me in the future when he is feeling curious or worried about his body. And the conversations have continued, from discussing privacy for his own body and others' in swim lesson locker room scenarios, to good-touch/bad-touch when it comes to his body boundaries.
I encourage all parents to challenge themselves to shake the shame and have these important conversations early and often! It will pay off at all stages of your children's development. You have the tools that they need and want. You are an influencer. Practicing and role playing is a great method to get more prepared for when these conversations come your way. Check out the resources on sexpositivefamilies.com. We can guide you to the right techniques to get you onto the path of being a Sex-Positive Family and knowing your influence.