Ask parents what their toddlers know about body parts and even privacy, and for many, their response will be ‘nothing’
I thought so too, until I started engaging with parents from various backgrounds. This was brought closer to home when my phone rang at 9:02 pm recently. Urgent, it seemed. The caller was a humble young man who had a situation to present.
Our conversation was a stark confirmation that toddlers today are learning about body parts, sex and sexuality very early – and in different ways.
Many scholars, including Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his students, Erik Erikson (1902-1994) and Ann Freud (1895-1982), have long argued that children at this age masturbate. But guess what? Whether we know this or not, we all refuse to acknowledge this. Society long decided to shut us up from talking about intimacy and privacy to the innocent ones.
When this male caller explained that his two year-old daughter touched his ‘private part’ and asked him what is it while giggling, I knew from the tone of his voice that he was in a dilemma that only education could solve. This caller is a PhD holder and his daughter’s mother a graduate. They are both educated. Why then will a science PhD holder call me to ask how to respond to this question from a toddler?
The conversation we ought to have with our toddlers cannot be called sexuality, communication or sex education
Let us rather refer to it as exploring the body, knowing privacy and understanding the differences between boys and girls.
Let us rather refer to it as exploring the body, knowing privacy and understanding the differences between boys and girls
Many parents whom I coach, want to know how to initiate conversations with their children and how to engage in conversations about this taboo topic. At every stage, they are eager to know what their children already know about the topic. Part of this desire comes because parents are curious to know what their children’s beliefs will be about this topic.
Communicating with young children about sexuality is uncommon in every culture. Yet, with cartoons disguising sexual content for younger and younger audiences, and all the sexual abuse incidences that have seen schools introducing sexuality education to lower grades, parents have to take on the guns, ready to expose their children to age-appropriate content, while preserving their innocence.
Some parents are educating themselves and learning exactly what to do, while others are held back by ignorance. I mean that while some parents ask how to start, like this caller did, others doubt what to say, and a majority even wonder when to say it. Even when the children ask, many ignore their requests.
Parents need to talk to children from when they are young, because they will hear about sex from friends, internet, media or other adults
If parents talk to them before they are exposed to all these other sources, they may be able to control the kind of information that their little ones access. Their children may also be more comfortable about talking to them later.
This article (and future articles on All4Women) will outline age-appropriate guidelines to talk to children about self-care, privacy, sex and sexuality. These articles all aim at saving parents some stress, while keeping their children’s sexual development on track and ensuring their health and safety. Next week, I will cover having The Talk with four to six-year-olds.
That night, I narrated the research of human evolution and how young children learn about gender. I told my caller to respond to his child by telling her that that the part is his penis and he uses it to pee just like his daughter uses her own vulva. As I explained – in an attempt to make him talk to his daughter after our conversation – I started thinking about how many other parents could be in the same position.
I came up with this list of dilemmas and suggestions on how to handle them
The goal of this article is to support parents to help their toddlers learn fast, while being comfortable with their whole-body parts.
Dilemma 1: In many homes and societies, it is unheard of to teach a little girl that she has a vulva and a boy that he has a penis. People have always had different names for these parts and that may work out well for them or not.
Suggestion 1: Toddlers will find out anyway. If you have an open and honest conversation with your toddler, you are teaching them and giving them security. Better still if you teach them about themselves and what makes up their bodies.
Dilemma 2: No one cares to teach toddlers the differences between boys and girls. No one explains that boys have penises and girls have vulvas.
Suggestion 2: Toddlers see and they learn anyway. Between 18 to 24 months, most children are able to recognise and label girls, women, boys and men. Remember that they have been exposed to this by you and society.
Dilemma 3: In many societies, people see it as not okay for toddlers to touch all parts of their body. In the same societies, children grab their vulvas or penis at bath time, during solo play, or during nappy changes to the astonishment or embarrassment of adults.
Suggestion 3: Toddlers know that they have them. This is what the above psychoanalysts referred to in stating that toddlers masturbate. Teaching toddlers is easy with patience. Teach them the difference between private and public and that some things are okay to do in private, but not where there are people around or public. Each time they touch, gently distract them.
Dilemma 4: In many societies, people do not talk about the functions of body parts to toddlers.
Suggestion 4: Toddlers know that urine comes out through your penis and vulva and that poo comes out through their anus. Just repeat it honestly because they know.
Dilemma 5: Societies do not approve of toddlers who like being naked. They are always completely dressed without being taught body boundaries or boundaries on nudity.
Suggestion 5: Tell toddlers that there is a reason, a time and a place to be naked and stick to your teachings.
My caller had a talk with his daughter AND his spouse on how they could teach gender difference, body parts and privacy to their daughter who is now three. By the time she is four, her parents will hopefully be confident enough, with my teachings, to continue The Talk with her.