Updated: Sep 26, 2022
Adults love quizzing their young children on their body parts. “Where are your eyes?” “Show me your nose!” But there are a few body parts that are frequently left out: penis, vulva, and anus. These parts are just as much a part of the body as any other part, but why are they not discussed more? It can feel taboo as an adult to address those private parts, but to a child they are just parts of the body that provide essential functions just as the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. The more words a child has to describe themselves, the safer they will be growing up. They will also be more empowered to describe when something seems wrong or is hurt, as well as feeling more comfortable to discuss those topics with their adult. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital notes the importance of having naming discussions, “early and often.”
Discussions about body parts can happen as early as a parent wants. As soon as an infant is born the adults around them start talking to them, and usually about physical features. “Oh look at those big eyes! Are you looking at [grandma]?” These same observations can be used about any body part, “I am going to change your diaper now, it might feel cold on your penis.” It is helpful to start the conversation before the child is talking to make the adult more comfortable using language they might not ordinarily use in conversation. The inevitable questions about how body parts work will be coming.
Child: “Where does my poop come from?”
Adult: “Well when you eat your body digests the food to get nutrients, then when it is all done with the food it moves through your intestines and out your anus. Poop is the part of food your body didn’t use for nutrients.”
These conversations can be as surface level or detailed as you would like, depending on how old the child is and how confident you are answering the questions. Don’t forget to keep in your back pocket, “I don’t have a good answer for that right now, let me look it up and get back to you.” But they will wait and remember you are getting back to them so find an answer before the question comes back around.
These discussions lead to the natural conversation surrounding consent and privacy as well. Both of these concepts lend to body safety in the form of body autonomy and awareness. While playing the body part games just add, “That is your vulva, that is a private part. Our private parts are for our eyes and hands only unless [mom] or [dad] needs to help for cleaning or safety.” This is also a common conversation had at bath time, “Okay, we are going to wash behind your ears, do you want to help or do you want me to do it all? Next is your penis, are you going to help me wash it or am I going to clean it all for you?”
There are good discussions surrounding consent at bath time, but it isn’t a time “No” can be respected due to baths needing to happen. If there is resistance at bath time try, “I hear you do not want to take a bath right now. It is my job to keep your body safe and part of that is getting clean. You can choose what toy to take into the bath or what we wash first, but it is time to take a bath right now.” It can be a challenging place to respect consent but is also a place for opportunities to discuss choice and consent when appropriate. They can choose in what order to wash their body, what color washcloth, which bath soap to use, or any other items you use during their bath.
Other times it is easier to respect consent, “You told me you don’t want a hug goodnight, okay, see you in the morning.” Or, “I heard you say stop during that game, we will do something else now.” All day long children are interacting with an adult and are sharing what they do and do not want to do. When you add in that you hear them and respect their choice, when appropriate, you are laying the foundation for consent and bodily autonomy.
Emphasizing and respecting consent ties into discussing safe and unsafe touches. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital discusses unsafe touches as hurtful or unwanted. For instance, “Kicks are not a safe touch, those hurt my body, please stop.” The University of Michigan encourages you to teach a child, “You are the boss of your body.” This encourages the enforcement of their boundaries while playing a game or other times they need it. It will lead to phrases such as, “Stop, this is my body and I am saying no.”
When children have a firm foundation of what their body is, what is normal, and how to identify their parts they will be safer around less familiar people. Whether that be a family reunion, a park, or a museum. There are new people everywhere and the safest a child can be is when they are empowered to use their voice, own their boundaries, and know when to tell an adult.
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