Private Parts: Big Deal Or Nothing To Get Hung Up About?

show_me_yours1227020043Sometime during toddlerhood, all moms face the moment when your little sprout discovers his maleness or her femaleness. “Wow! New world down there! Feels different … kinda good, in fact.”

They may start touching themselves a lot after this new find, and you may notice that your baby boy gets erections. Whenever this happens, rest assured that an important, normal milestone has been reached.

How you react- your voice, tone, the words you use, your facial expression- is one of your child’s first lessons in sexuality. By keeping it real (and by that we mean avoid running screaming out of the room) you’re teaching that curiosity about his or her body is a normal and healthy part of life.

But for even the most progressive of us, the subject of a child’s private parts can raise the anxiety level a notch or two. First of all, there’s the question of what to call them. Is your family the proper anatomical type (penis and vagina), or are you more comfortable with nicknames (we don’t need to go through the list, do we)? No judgment here, what you decide will likely have a lot to do with how you were raised and which words roll easily off the tongue for you and dad. Just make sure that whatever you choose is neutral and accurate.

Once you’ve named them, you’ll want to think about how to honor your child’s curiosity while teaching what’s appropriate in private vs. public. Then there’s how to clean them, how much detail about function to explain, and how to let them know that other adults, with the exception of parents and the doctor, shouldn’t have reason to touch them. Whew! It’s getting complicated … that seems like a lot.

So here’s a scenario that might offer a few ideas …

Jonah/Jenny (16 months) is in the tub splashing around with bath toys while you sit on the closed toilet reading the new issue of Vanity Fair.  You notice that he/she seems to have lost interest in pouring water from one cup to another, and is now fascinated with pulling and tugging at his/her penis/vagina.  You watch for a minute, hoping he/she’ll lose interest (fat chance).  Several minutes go by …

You:  hey, sweetie ~ that’s your [whatever word you’ve chosen].  Are you washing it?

J/J:  Pee-pee big! Pee-pee good …

You:  Yes, that’s right ~ it’s good to keep it clean, just like the rest of you.  Here’s how we wash it … [demonstrate with washcloth].

… and sometimes it tickles and feels good when you touch it.  That’s OK, and it’s something you can do when you’re at home or in private, because that’s YOUR ‘private place’.  Boys have a private place called a [whatever] and girls have a different kind called a [whatsis].  Once in awhile Dr. Bob may need to check your private place to make sure it’s healthy, just like he checks your ears and your belly, and Mommy and Daddy will help wash you sometimes, but mostly it’s just yours.

The point is to communicate that’s it’s all good, it’s all theirs, and it’s no big deal. You’ll need to refine and repeat this as time goes on to keep up with your child’s level of understanding, but the message remains the same.

Boys are different from girls and have different body parts.  These parts feel ‘tickly’ when you touch them, and you do that in private rather than in front of other people.  It’s perfectly OK to touch your own, but not so much to touch others’.

Then it’s up to you to decide when to expand the conversation into ” when you’re grown up … “, but let us assure you that time will come sooner rather than later.  And that’s a topic for another post …

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.


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