When you are parenting a teething infant or feisty toddler, the child’s sexual development seems a long way in the future. But, while puberty is still many years away, it is never too early to lay the foundation for healthy views of privacy, autonomy and boundaries.
In fact, a child’s sexual development begins in their early years, with how they experience and feel about their bodies and showing affection. The ideas below will help you support your children’s physical and emotional safety, health, and happiness.
Idea #1: Teach your kid(s) not to keep secrets
One idea that child abuse prevention experts recommend is a family rule that you do not keep secrets from each other. “Surprises” are OK, because you keep quiet about them temporarily (i.e. birthday gifts or parties) and then they make people happy. But secrets are not allowed, and people should not ask children to keep them, because you do not hide information from your family. Denver Mom’s Blog wrote a great article on why her family has adopted this rule:
“We have this rule because secrecy is a key ingredient to the sexual abuse of a child. In fact, sexual predators count on the fact that the child will keep a secret. Sometimes they even test the child by asking him to keep small, innocent secrets first to see if he will keep bigger ones later. So, when we teach our children that we don’t keep secrets, even about small and seemingly harmless things like [eating an extra] cookie, we are also instilling in them that they don’t have to keep big and unsafe secrets, like that of someone touching them inappropriately.”
Idea #2: Your kid(s) decide when, and if, to give affection
If you have been on Facebook in the last six months, you have probably seen this viral article about why your child should never be forced to hug anyone, even grandma. Some of us may have grown up in a family where denying an aunt or uncle a hug was considered rude or disrespectful. However, child development experts are increasingly encouraging parents to allow their child to decide if, when, and to whom they provide physical affection.
While a hug may seem innocent enough, allowing your child to have autonomy over these decisions of whom they share intimacy with is a great way to teach them about consent. As teens and adults, we have the right to decide who we hug and kiss, and this right of refusal and need for consent can start from a young age. After reading the article I Don’t Own My Child’s Body, I decided that, if my children aren’t in the mood for affection, they can simply say “bye” or wave to a friend or relative who is leaving.
“‘I will never force him to kiss anyone — even if a great aunt is visiting who may get her feelings hurt. Hugs and kisses are his to give and are not compulsory.’ Hetter also reminds us that forcing our kids to be affectionate when they don’t want to can impact their sexual relationships as teens because it teaches them to use their body to please you or someone else in authority or, really, anyone.”
Try to avoid phrases like…
- “Grandma will be sad if you don’t give her a hug”
- “Mommy will give you your snack after you give me a big hug.”
These seem harmless but can reinforce the idea that people can and should use their bodies to make other people happy or to get something they want.
Idea #3: Teach your child(ren) medically accurate terms for all of their body parts, including their genitals
It may be tempting to teach kids nicknames for their genitals, especially if you yourself are not 100% comfortable with those words yourself. However, health and development experts agree that it is important to teach children the correct names for their safety and to develop body positivity.
Even young children need to be able to identify their body parts accurately so that they can identify and talk about any issues of illness, pain, injury, or sexual abuse.
“Teaching children anatomically correct terms, age-appropriately, says Laura Palumbo, a prevention specialist with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), promotes positive body image, self confidence, and parent-child communication; discourages perpetrators; and, in the event of abuse, helps children and adults navigate the disclosure and forensic interview process.” (Source)
Idea #4: Provide your kid(s) with age appropriate books on bodies
Another great thing that you can do to support your child as they learn about their body, is to provide them with age appropriate books. One of my favorite authors for children is Robie Harris.
Her books provide medically accurate, age appropriate information for children about their body parts and function, in a way that is positive, cheerful and confident. For preschool age children, I’d recommend Who Has What?: All About Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies, which features a simple story, illustrations and straightforward information that reassures kids that their bodies are healthy and normal.
The Child Abuse of the Quad Cities also has a great list of age-appropriate books for kids and parents.
Idea #5: Teach your child(ren) about privacy (or, in my case, let them teach you)
As I mentioned above in lesson 2, it is important to let children be the boss of their own body.
Personally, I learned the “hard” way that children as young as 2 are ready for privacy and to set their own boundaries. As soon as we began potty training, my twins started to tell each other “me need privacy” and now, it is a constant shouting match of “give me privacy!” and slamming doors when they are using the toilet (my son) or having their diaper changed (my daughter).
Just as two year old are ready for bathroom privacy, they are also ready to learn about other boundaries. For example, children need to learn that only their parents and other designated care givers can change or bathe them. Doctors may need to exam their bodies, including their genitals, to make sure they are healthy, but their parents will also be there.
Toddlers are also ready to learn that, just as their genitals are private, they should not touch other people’s private parts. Here’s one way you can explain it to your child – No one may see or touch your private body parts except to keep you clean and healthy.
Some ideas to teach your toddlers about privacy and autonomy…
- Let your toddler choose whether you will wash their genitals or they will wash them themselves at bath time.
- Give your toddler their desired amount of privacy when they are using the restroom (i.e. close the door halfway or stand in the hallway).
- Explain that certain behaviors only happen in certain places. Just like we don’t eat dinner in the bathtub, we don’t touch our genital at the dinner table. Just like we don’t wear clothes in the bath, we don’t play naked at the park or with our friends.
- Respect when your child says “no” when you are tickling or rough-housing with them. Stop what you are doing and don’t start tickling etc. again unless they ask.
- Be consistent with the idea that they are in charge of their own body, even when it comes to play or “crafts.” For example, my daughter hates to have your hands and feet painted or traced for crafts, so I have told her pre-preschool teacher not to force her to participate, (even though it means a lot less cute artwork for me).
Idea #6: Explain to your kids how to get help and believe them.
We all want to believe that nothing would happen to our children, but it’s important to teach our kids HOW to get help. The first steps are in the tips above – by talking about the child’s body, you are opening up the lines of communication. But you should also be more open. As they get older (preschool) tell them that if something makes them feel uncomfortable (like their tummy feeling funny when they are with them) they should tell a grown up right away.
Angie Kendall, local mom and director of development at the Child Abuse Council of the Quad Cities, tells kids three rules. “Say no, TRY to get away, and tell a grown up,” she says. “I always say TRY to get away because some kids can’t/don’t and we don’t want to cast blame on them.”
She also reminds us that not listening to children is a huge problem and false reports are extremely rare. So if a child confides in you and tells you something is wrong, your first step is believing them.
It is also possible that kids will tell you but not in the most black and white words. They may say “Uncle John wears funny underwear.” That’s a clue. Why do they know that? An adult should be asking more questions when they hear that.
“It is ALWAYS our job to keep kids safe,” Angie says. “It’s not the child’s job.”
Want more info? Don’t miss these local resources:
- Parenting resources from Child Abuse Council of the Quad Cities
- Sexual Abuse Prevention from Prevent Child Abuse Iowa
- Healthy Relationships for children from ISU Extension and Outreach, Scott County
What tips and ideas would you like to add to keep our toddlers safe and healthy?