I’m Touching My Vulva

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.

26840Maybe 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.

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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…)

This article has 15 comments

  1. Wonderful sexplaining!! So expressive and really helps to give a person some new skills in a comfort zone that often is the opposite!
    Keep it up! Xx Gay

  2. Marnie, I found you via another parent educator and I am so glad! Your approach is so positive, healthy and just wonderful. I am so glad to have found your site and will be adding it to my list of resources for parents.

  3. Great Article and I’m glad that I stumbled across it. I agree with what you have said, but I wonder if talking in that way with my almost 5 year old will in turn encourage her to speak like this with other children and I may get some discerning remarks from other parents? We talk about my son having a penis and daughter a vulva and the differences etc, but we don’t really talk about it being okay to touch their selves.  How would I respond if say I got pulled aside by my daughters daycare teachers because she was telling the other children it’s okay to masturbate and touch them selves ? 

    Kay

    • Thanks for the question, Kay. It’s important that we teach our children the difference between secret and private. I wrote about it a bit here. I think we can help our children understand that some conversations are private because different people feel different things about the topic. So, it’s okay to say ‘touching your genitals is perfectly fine but it has to happen in a private place. ALSO, if you want to talk about it, that’s ok too, but it’s a private conversation. It’s not something to share with your friends because it belongs to their parents to tell them about it. Here’s who you can talk to about it….

      Now, if your kid ends up sharing the good news with a buddy at daycare… oh well! I don’t mean to be too cheeky, but I think we need to put it all into perspective. Every child needs to learn good boundaries, so you’ll have to reinforce the expectations of privacy just like you had to the week before on some other unrelated matter. And, I’d be sure to explain to your kid that the information isn’t bad or wrong just private. In terms of responding to the daycare worker or another parent, I would let them know that you’ll reinforce that the topic is private and maybe slip in that you hope what was communicated was accurate!

  4. My oldest is now 20 and we’ve always taught them that if you want to do it, and it’s safe, and it feels good…then it’s good! I believe strongly in the power of positive body image and sexual health from day one!

  5. Great article. I’ve wondered how to talk about this with my 4 & 5 year-olds. I will be exploring this site more! 

  6. Any suggestions for healthily reintroducing body positivity to a preschooler who has been shamed? Our son was always touching himself, we didn’t really mind untill he started getting infections all the time! We tried explaining it to him, being gentle and understanding – but he just wouldn’t leave his penis alone! We had to just start saying “Stop touching your penis please!” And I am afraid we may have shamed him into stopping. We already talk openly and positively about our bodies, and answer any questions he has – but I still worry.

    • Great question. I think many of us inadvertantly shame our kids or think we have. I have two suggestions. The first is keep doing what you are doing because it sounds like you are doing great. Our kids are resiliant and smart and often don’t take their cues from one thing we say but a pattern of communication. Your kid might very well have heard the gentle explanation about hurting himself and might have needed something more stern to change the behaviour. Secondly, I’m always a big fan of a good book. Robie Harris’ It’s Not the Stork can be purchased (from my website here) which can offer a different opportunity to share shame-free information with your kid.

  7. My mom was recently saying how she was having a hard time sleeping to which my almost 4 year old replied “you can do your private thing, that’s what I do. It helps me sleep”

  8. I’m confused in regards to the last three words. Are you suggetting to tell our kids it’s appropriate to touch their genitals in front of certain people?

    “Because of that, it’s ok to do it [ie. in your room/in our house/in the bath/in front of .... ]“

    • Thanks so much for writing for clarification. I wrote this becuase some parents might not want to message to their 3 or 4 year olds that they need to go to a private space. When kids are really young, parents may want to say its ok to touch their genitals around mommy and daddy but nobody else. As kids get older, we can change the message.

  9. I think you left out a part when talking about the rules.  No one else should touch yours or have you touch theirs- except mom or dad ect to wash or potty or the dr to make sure everything is healthy. And if someone tries you tell-no matter what. They need a vocabulary for setting boundaries and protecting themselves along with being aware and proud of their bodies. 

  10. Marnie, I had a good laugh when I read the part about telling kids to wash their hands AFTER touching their genitals, because at our house, I always encourage them to wash there hands BEFORE touching their genitals. I emphasize this because as someone who gets a lot of vaginal infections, I think it’s important to not introduce, say, tempera paint, to one’s genitalia, perhaps particularly to the vulva. But from the comment above, maybe to the penis, too! 

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