On the way home from a visit with grandma, my 3-year-old son locked eyes with me in the rearview mirror and asked me why I didn’t have a penis. I couldn’t help but let out a giggle because I was somehow still surprised that my kids could go from talking about their favorite stuffed animal to talking about their genitals—but, hey, that’s kids right? They often have no filter, which can be an amazing opener to the sometimes difficult conversations about their bodies and how to explore safely.
If my son had asked me the question about a year ago, I probably would have stumbled, laughed more, and attempted to change the subject. But since becoming a parent, I have learned that body positivity and shame-free sexual education can help prioritize consent, health, and safety for my children as they grow older and begin to explore. While we are a little ways off from the sex talk (that I’m still dreading a little bit), my husband and I have both agreed we need to start early with a solid foundation.
Here are four ways that you can approach toddlers exploring their bodies.
1. Use proper names for genitals
Back in the ’90s when I was just a little girl, I was taught to refer to my genitals as a “peepee” or “privates.” While I understand parents may want to use terms and nicknames to preserve childhood innocence—or for other reasons—it is very important to use correct names.
Research has shown predators are less likely to pick children to target if they use the proper name for their body parts, and if something were to happen, the child would be more likely understood by adults and taken seriously. Remember that it is never too late to switch your vocabulary and teach children the proper names of their vulva, penis, vagina, or anus.
Research has shown predators are less likely to pick children to target if they use the proper name for their body parts.
2. Embrace gender exploration
At this age, many children are just starting to realize their sex and may role-play with identifying their toys. Coming from a very conservative family, the idea of gender identity and fluidity was hard to grasp. But for young children, you can start incorporating inclusive language early. Instead of saying to my son that “girls don’t have penises” I said, “most girls don’t have penises but some do.” Many toddlers will be comfortable enough identifying their gender, and it’s a great time to continue open conversations.
3. Teach consent for their bodies and respect for others’
Teaching kids about consent in simpler terms can set up children for success later in life. They can be empowered to set boundaries with their own bodies and respect others as well. According to Harvard Graduate School of Education, early education about consent can help set them up with the social-emotional skills to thrive.
Starting with teaching phrases like “no hug” or “no kiss” and then respecting and listening to them when they use those phrases can help build their confidence so when they are without a parent present, they can start to advocate for themselves. This can also help them learn that they need to listen, so when a friend or peer in school says no touching, they need to respect that.
You can practice at home by letting them know you don’t want to be climbed on for a piggyback ride or that you don’t want toy cars in your hair even though they find it fun. Their early experiences are important in practicing respecting when someone says “no” and will make it easier as they grow up.
4. Set boundaries for safe self-exploration in private places
While it is completely natural and normal for children to explore their body parts and even to masturbate, it is also good to set boundaries. Toddlers and children can often be caught with their hands in their pants while watching television, and as parents, we may jump to tell them that’s inappropriate. Some of this shame or embarrassment may have been passed down for generations. It is time to eliminate the shame, guilt, and fear that was often taught about masturbation in the past, and instead, reinforce privacy and exploration in the bathroom or bedroom when they are alone.
It is time to eliminate the shame, guilt, and fear that was often taught about masturbation in the past, and instead, reinforce privacy and exploration in the bathroom or bedroom when they are alone.
One way you can model this to a young child who is caught in the act is by remaining calm and directing them toward their room. For my children, a phrase I like to use is, “I know you want to explore your body, but that needs to be done in your room.” By approaching it in a practical way, like potty training, it can make the experience less about embarrassment and more about empowerment.