An old roommate of mine, Kelly, ran a pre-school in our beautiful back yard in Santa Barbara, California through the 1990s. She was an amazing educator. Inclusive, creative, joyful and honest in her approach with kids.
Preschoolers often ran barefoot and bare-chested in our yard among the chickens, cats and orange trees. It was a slice of heaven.
Kelly tells a story about ‘circle time’ - when the children have a chance to share whatever they wish to share with their friends. A little girl in the group, let’s call her Annabel, put up her hand indicating that she had something to share. When Kelly called on her, she said ‘I’m touching my vulva’. That was it. That was what she wanted to share. Kelly in all her teacher wisdom, said ‘Thanks for sharing, Annabel. Who has something else to share?’
Kids touch themselves. And they’ll talk about it if they have no reason to feel as though they shouldn’t. As we all know from considerable experience, kids are often happy to natter on about anything and everything if they’re given the space to talk freely.
Some among us may have memories of being ‘caught’ touching our own genitals as young kids. We might have been told we were dirty or rude or assumed those things because of the way we were told to stop or the glare we received while doing it. Learning that what we were doing was ‘inappropriate behaviour’ was a kind of shaming. Others of us might have no memories specifically of touching our genital which doesn’t usually mean that we didn’t investigate ‘down there’. Likely we did but adults said nothing – understanding that it’s no big deal. Which is good, since it isn’t.
It strikes me that touching ones own genitals tends to increase just as you do away with daytime diapers. Gone is the toddler version of the chastity belt! Finally, access! It’s completely healthy for kids to check out their bodies – especially parts that they’ve had limited access to.
Maybe we can do even better than saying nothing when our kids touch themselves. After all, when our children discover something or are curious about themselves, it’s worth noting. Or dare I say, worth celebrating. As my kids develop their fine motor skills I talk to them about it – about their adept use of their hands to cut with scissors, or form legible letters with a pencil. I also point out things that they do out of habit like picking at a scab because it’s itchy and uncomfortable. It’s not about shame, but about helping them notice their bodies, what they do with them or what their bodies do all on their own.
Where genitals are concerned, I think we can improve our communication with our kids. Give yourselves a pat on the back if you use words like penis and vulva when talking to your kids since it’s an important start to a healthy, sex-positive self image.
Telling them more about their genitals doesn’t need to wait for their questions. Our healthy perspective and comments can coincide with their perfectly reasonable and appropriate behavior – like looking at or touching themselves. Whether our young children are investigating their genitals or have discovered masturbation, we can use the opportunity to talk to them about it. When we talk about everything else except genitals, we create shame about those parts of our bodies. Let me restate: our silences create sexual shame.
Instead of respecting their healthy touches with silence, we can verbalize that curiosity and getting to know your own body is healthy.
- Ask a question like ‘Are you checking out your vulva/penis/anus?’
- Inquire if everything feels comfortable to them by explaining that people sometimes get infections or rashes or sores on their penis/vulva/anus and if they do, they ought to let you know so you can help with the discomfort.
- Comment with ‘Now that you don’t wear a diaper in the daytime you can much more easily touch your vulva/penis/anus.’
- ‘Would you like a mirror to better see that part of your body?’
Where young kids discover masturbation, why not name it? How about something like this:
- ‘When you touch yourself that way, it feels good doesn’t it? That’s called masturbation. Lots of people do it.’ (That’s not so bad, is it?)
Along with normalizing the behavior of touching ones own genitals, you can reinforce house rules for touching with comments like:
- ‘You know how we wash our hands after we use the toilet? Urine and feces leave germs on our genitals so after wiping, a good hand wash guarantees that any germs that got on our hands aren’t being spread around. Unless you’ve just bathed, your genitals may still have some germs on them so after you touch that part of your body, hand washing is a good idea.’
- ‘You know how we close the door when we use the toilet? For privacy? Touching your penis/vagina/anus is private too. Because of that, it’s ok to do it [ie. in your room/in our house/in the bath/in front of .... ]
It’s all about talking and starting when their young. We can let our kids know that their curiosity and investigations are good.
Do you have other suggestions for encouraging body knowledge and curiosity? I’d love to hear them or just hear the tales of your kids discovering their genitals. (It can make for some funny stories…)