As a parent, I hope my children don't grow up being afraid of the world. I do, however, know that there are frightening things my children need to be protected from. Providing our children with tools to keep them safe while preserving their childhood innocence sometimes feels like walking a tightrope, particularly when it comes to issues around sexual touching and personal boundaries.
How Early is Too Early?
Many parents have expressed to me that they want their children to understand the difference between good touch and bad touch, but they don't want to give young children too much information. My advice is to start early by teaching them about their anatomy. Even pre-verbal children can learn about their body parts. When bathing your toddler or changing a diaper, talk to your child about who is allowed to wipe or wash them. As they become aware of norms around getting dressed, talk to your child about who is allowed to see him or her undressed (a parent or a doctor, for example) and when it is appropriate to keep clothes on.
Give Your Children Language
Knowing the names of body parts is empowering to children. Learning that a penis or a vagina has a name removes some of the mystery of that body part. It's a body part, just as an elbow or a foot is a body part. It helps children feel a sense of ownership. This is MY vagina. This is MY penis. That sense of ownership is a protective factor against potential abuse. It also gives children the words they need to communicate if someone does try to touch them inappropriately.
Demonstrate That You Can Handle It
Teaching your kids about their bodies reassures them that YOU are comfortable talking about the subject. If your children know that you can comfortably talk to them about their bodies under normal circumstances, they are more likely to come to you if there's a problem such as a health concern or to report inappropriate touching. When children have the impression that parents are embarrassed by genitals or the words we use to describe them, they may worry that talking about it will be upsetting to adults. By leading the conversation, you are demonstrating that it is okay to come to you.
But What If I'm Not Comfortable?
You may feel uncomfortable having conversations with your kids about their anatomy and the difference between appropriate touching and inappropriate touching. Perhaps this was a topic that your family didn't talk about. Maybe your personal history adds some extra challenges. Or maybe you just aren't sure how to start the discussion with your own children. That's okay! If you are feeling uncertain about how to talk to your kids or having difficulty with your own discomfort about words like penis and vagina, a counselor may be able to coach you through steps to increase your confidence and to practice having these conversations.
Simone D'Amore is a Licensed Professional Counselor practicing in Beaverton, Oregon.