Starting from a young age, many children are fascinated with the human body. But while it's not uncommon to see a toddler running around the house naked, feeling completely comfortable with her body, young children's curiosity about their bodies can often give parents pause. What's the right way to respond when your preschool child starts asking questions about his or her private parts or those of the opposite sex? When is the right age to bring it up? And how can parents foster in their child a healthy relationship with her body? Here's what parents need to know about talking about the human body with their preschooler:
No age is too young to begin a dialogue with your child about her body, because good communication will enable your child to have a positive relationship with her body and a strong self image as she changes over the years.
It's during the preschool years that a child begins to acquire a gender identity of a boy or a girl. Your daughter may notice that her body is different from that of her younger brother or your son may wonder why his body looks different from mommy's. From this very young age, it is critical that your child feels comfortable with asking you questions about her body. Children are naturally curious, so always praise your child for asking a question and be honest and straightforward with your answers.
Talking About Body Parts
Ages 2 to 4 It is best to be brief and to the point in your talks. If your child asks, you can explain that there are girl body parts and boy body parts. Referring to genitals as simply “private parts” is the most basic explanation for a two- to four-year-old. “At this age, real body part names can be mimicked in public," explains Kaiser Permanente pediatrician Dr. Carol-Lynn Barksy. "This can lead to embarrassment and toddler fixation on genitals because a child may get positive reinforcement, such as dramatic responses from people around them, when they bring up anatomically correct names at young age.”
Age 4 to 5 It is more developmentally appropriate to start using the real words for body parts instead of play words because it will help your child to better understand his body. At this age, you can explain to your child that his body will change as he grows and impress upon him the importance of asking when a question comes up.
Where Do Babies Come From?
Even as this age, it's important to answer this question with factual information instead of made-up concepts. However, there's not need to get into the specifics. For example, a parent can tell a three-year-old that a baby comes from love between two people, rather than from a stork in the sky. At this age, your child doesn't want or need the details, however. You can expand on these as your child grows older.
It's Normal to Be Curious
How a parent responds to a child’s question about her body and genitals can help a child to create a healthy and confident attitude towards her body. “It's developmentally appropriate for a preschool child to be curious and want to touch her body" explains Linda Williams, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). The key to talking to your child about this topic is teaching her the context in which it is appropriate.” Feelings of curiosity regarding anatomy are typical at this age and questions should always be encouraged by parents. Teach your child that it is okay and normal to be curious about and touch her own body. If a child is caught touching her genitals and she is taught that private parts are dirty or disgusting, that negative body image concept will remain in her mind as she grows. It's more appropriate to explain that is normal for her to be curious about and touch her body, while also stressing that genitals are private.
Private Parts Are Private
When discussing private parts, teaching your child awareness of his or her genitalia should not be the end of the discussion. Barsky urges parents to also discuss the issues of personal safety. “It is important to emphasize to your child that certain areas are private," she says. "Explain that people should not be touching your child unless it is at the doctors’ office with a parent, or it is purpose driven, like for bathing or changing diapers.” It's necessary to help your child to understand that she should come tell mommy or daddy if anyone asks to look at or touch a private part of the body.
The bottom line? The next time your child asks a question about her body, take a deep breath and begin a pleasant conversation that is factual and honest. Use teachable moments as avenues to begin discussions and always ask your child if she has any questions for you. Open communication with your child about her anatomy will start your child on the road to a healthy relationship with her body, and with you as a parent.