There is nothing shameful about our bodies, so why do we teach our children otherwise?
My fifteen month old, David, and I were visiting with my family recently, and by “visiting with my parents,” I mean that he was running around on his spindly little legs wearing only a long shirt and no diaper. Several minutes into the fun, we took a break to show off David’s knowledge of body parts. Nose? Check. Mouth? Check. Hands? Double check. Everything was going fine until we got to the body part that David had learned most recently…penis. When David pointed to his penis (I’ll be honest, it was more of a grope than a point), my parents and sister made pained noises and my mother said, “Don’t teach him that. Why did you teach him that?”
If you’ve spent any time around an infant, then you know that they can be very interested in their genitals from the very moment that their diapers come off and they realize that there’s something down there. My family’s response to David’s familiarity with his penis is representative of a wider discomfort that people feel with children’s reproductive organs and, to a greater degree, children’s sexuality. It’s not just that we don’t want to see kids being sensual, no one is disturbed (and some people think that it’s adorable) when my son strokes his own hair and eyelashes when he’s falling asleep. We want to think of children as innocent and asexual, but having a healthy interest in your body, especially the parts that feel good, is completely normal. It’s natural for kids – boys and girls – to touch themselves, rub up against things, and talk about their genitals.
My wife and I have a very specific policy for talking about body parts, even though our son is still far too young to understand it. Here’s what happens: At some point during a bath or diaper change, David decides that it would be a good idea to check out his penis. I say, “That’s your penis. It’s part of your body and you can do whatever you like with it in private.” When David gets older, we’ll still need to do the hard work of defining “public” and “private,” but that’s our basic approach. Our theory is that if we talk to him about his body and sexuality all along, even when he can’t understand it, then we’ll all be more comfortable talking about it when things get weird and awkward during puberty.
We (meaning Americans) might think that we’re a mature, cosmopolitan culture, but deep down our personal, social, and religious values are heavily influenced by our country’s Puritan past. Sex and genitalia are associated with shame, embarrassment, and – in some cases – guilt, but there are important reasons to talk to children about their bodies. A child who knows about their body and is not ashamed to talk about it is safer than a child who is ignorant or embarrassed about their body. It is natural for people, including children, to hide their shame, but this tendency makes them more likely to keep sexual abuse secret. This vulnerability is exaggerated by our irrational avoidance of the words “penis” and “vagina.” Parents use words like pee-pee, who-ha, goober, ding-a-ling, and fanny, but each of these cutesy words creates opportunities for people to ignore serious situations. When we hear a child say, “He touched my doodle,” we’re much more likely to dismiss it than if the same child said, “He touched my vagina.” More generally, it can’t be healthy for children to receive messages from birth that their body parts are disgusting or shameful. At best, these feelings make honest and open conversations about sexuality awkward, and at worst they form the basis for later sexual anxiety and dysfunction. So, the next time you see a baby make a grab for his penis, take a deep breath and say, “Yep, that’s your penis!”
A quick note to my son, David. Although you probably won’t be ashamed of your body, you will definitely be ashamed of the things that I write about you. The internet is forever, but so is my love for you.