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“Hey, today Kyle asked if I had a penis, and I said no,” five-year-old Sara said casually at the dinner table one night. “He said, ‘Prove it!’ so I showed him my vagina!” Sara’s parents choked a bit on their pasta but kept their cool. “We reminded her that private parts should stay private and no one should be looking at penises or vaginas at daycare,” remembers Sara’s dad, Rob Virtanen.* “My wife also had a low-key chat with the supervisors at the after-school program and asked them to keep a closer eye on the play fort.”
Whether you call it “playing doctor” or “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” there will likely come a time when your child will be interested in seeing or touching a friend’s or sibling’s genitals. “This comes up a lot, especially in the six- to nine-year-old age range,” says Saleema Noon, a sexual health educator in Vancouver and co-author of Talk Sex Today: What Kids Need to Know and How Adults Can Teach Them. She explains that kids this age are in what’s called the primary stage of sexual development, where they think words like “coochie” and “wiener” are hil-ar-i-ous, and where they also start to notice that other bodies look different. “It’s important for parents to know that because, first, it’s totally normal, and second, it’s out of curiosity,” she says. Here are some tips on how to have these important chats.
Ideally, you’ll have many mini-conversations with your kids about sexual health, starting when kids begin to talk, says Noon, which is what Sara’s family had done. “Use any opportunity that comes up naturally to give little snippets of information,” she says. “That sends the message to kids that this is not something shameful, that bodies are not a secret, and that they have the right to learn about this.” Instead of using cutesy terms like “hoo-ha,” kids should call body parts by proper names—“penis,” “vagina” or “vulva”—in case they need to tell you or a healthcare provider if there’s an issue.
In terms of safety and consent, says Noon, teach your child from toddlerhood that there are different private parts on his or her body—the mouth, the breasts, the genitals and the buttocks—and that no one is allowed to see or touch them without permission. (Clarifying, of course, that mom, dad or caregivers can help wash their body, a dentist will look in their mouth at an office visit and a doctor or nurse may look at genitals with a parent present.)
So what do you do if you walk into a room during a playdate and discover two naked six-year-olds? “Don’t freak out!” says Noon. Instead, tell the kids to get dressed and take them into the kitchen for a drink. Briefly talk about how it’s important to respect each other’s bodies, and while it’s fine for them to be curious, it’s not appropriate to learn about bodies by exploring someone else’s. Later, give the other parents a quiet heads-up. With siblings, the same rules apply: Say, “It’s fine to be naked with our family, but we respect boundaries.” For the Walkens*, a family of six, that meant stopping brother-sister baths when their four-year-old son, Jaden, started to kick back and relax as their 18-month-old daughter examined his genitals. “That’s when our time-saving co-bathing came to an end!” says their mom, Sue.
If you do react negatively in the moment, with anger or shaming, just be honest, says Noon. Try something like, “When I walked into your room and saw the two of you, I reacted like I was mad, but I was actually shocked. You’re not in trouble. Let’s go and get a good book so we can learn about bodies together in a healthy and appropriate way.”
If your child is more interested in his own private parts than someone else’s, that’s fine, too. Masturbation is quite common in kids four to eight (and possibly those even younger), says Noon. “The main message we want to convey to our kids at any age is that it’s normal and healthy, but private,” she says. “Acknowledge that it feels good to explore their bodies, but that it has to be done only when they are alone, like in their bedroom or the bathroom.”
Bottom line: All this is typical kid behaviour. “It’s not uncommon at all for kids in this age group, or even younger, to want to explore bodies,” says Noon. “They’re fascinated by their own bodies and by the bodies around them.”
Books are really helpful for showing what bodies look like and how they work, says sexual health educator Saleema Noon. Two of her top picks: What Makes a Baby? by Cory Silverberg and Boys, Girls and Body Science by Meg Hickling.
*Names have been changed
This article was originally published online in January 2018.