Last week, while on my quest for green bananas in the local grocery store, I came upon two late preschool aged siblings having a very animated conversation. As I got closer, I heard one of the siblings confidently offer instructions to their sibling about how to wash genitals. It went something like this. “When you wash a vulva, you use warm water and soap but only on the outside parts. No soap goes in the inside parts.” It was amazing to hear their knowledge concerning their own bodies.
While I was listening with admiration for both their knowledge and comfort, quite typically by this point the other sibling was busy now looking at something far more exciting. I then heard the adult with them successfully redirect the conversation in the most affirming way. They told them both “it’s a better idea for us to talk about our bodies at home.” The adult then made eye contact with me and quietly apologized to me for the kids’ “TED talks.” I re-assured the adult that the conversation was completely okay with me. Then, I offered my congratulations on a job well done. I shared that, as a sexual health educator, the preschoolers’ correct knowledge and comfort are exactly what they need to be healthy and safe.
This conversation is a fantastic example of what effective, comprehensive sexual health education includes for this age group. When trusted adults offer simple, accurate information with children at an early age in a developmentally appropriate way, our children develop the ability to gather information to help take care of their bodies, respect boundaries, feel confident and gain the ability to communicate without embarrassment or shame.
How To Have A Conversation About Bodies
Here are five ways you can continue to encourage comfort and grow knowledge with the preschooler in your life:
Use Scientific Language (on repeat!) for all parts of the body. Whether we’re talking about elbows, eyebrows, earlobes or genitals. Use the scientific words (vulva, vagina, penis, scrotum…) when referring to their bodies. If you’re struggling to use these terms because they’re not familiar to you yet, borrow some body books from the library and read them together. This will help you practice and build comfort with the words for genitals while supporting your child’s learning.
Personal parts (and conversations about personal parts) are for personal spaces. Ensure children know that their genitals (aka personal parts of their bodies) are okay to explore at home in personal spaces like their own bedrooms or bathrooms on their own with their own clean hands. Conversations about these parts are also for personal spaces. A gentle, firm reminder and re-direct will help them know that they aren’t doing anything wrong or shameful. But that there are safe, comfortable places to talk about and explore bodies.
Satisfy body curiosity with an unbreakable mirror for the bathtub. An unbreakable mirror is going to help children see all parts of their bodies. The genitals are curious organs and can be difficult for little people to see and understand. Seeing their bodies will also help them recognize the changes that will take place as they develop. Many parents I work with report back how much their kids enjoy having mirrors in the bathtub.
Gentle hygiene practices for the genitals. Help children understand that they can clean the outside of the genitals and the folds of skin surround the genitals with warm water and gentle soap in the shower or bath. It’s not necessary nor comfortable to use soap in the inside of our bodies (vaginal, urethral opening). Just a cloth and warm water will do the job quite easily.
Tickling and/or wrestling are great examples of boundaries and consent. Talk about how some people like to be tickled or like to wrestle with each other while other people don’t. Encourage kids to ask before they tickle someone or wrestle with them and model the same consent practice with them. Tickling and wrestling also provide awesome opportunities to point out the times when someone is having fun and then they suddenly reach their limit and want to stop. This is a simple, tangible way to practice how to set, observe and accept boundaries.
So, while we may prefer that our kids have different conversations when they’re in the produce section, please know that these mini body TED Talks are natural. Bodies are super exciting things to talk and learn about. Take the conversation as a sign of all the things you and your kids are doing well albeit amplified.