“They’re playing ‘Butts and Penises,’” my husband answered.
My son and his friend had just disappeared upstairs into his bedroom, and I was wondering where they were.
“Yeah. They want to take a look. I said it was fine.”
I contemplated what that meant. It seemed innocent enough.
“I’m going to check on them,” I said and strode upstairs. The door was locked. I also considered what that meant. Clearly they wanted privacy. I felt okay with that but also wanted to see what was going on.
I knocked on the door. Casual, I told myself. Very casual. I announced my intentions. I just wanted to make sure everything was okay. They said it was. I think my son’s pants were down near his knees.
“What are you two up to?”
“Nothing.” I paused. Considered.
“Oh,” I said, “I heard you two were playing ‘Butts and Penises.’” They nodded. I could tell they were waiting to hear if the other shoe was going to drop.
“That’s cool. Just make sure you’re both a yes, and wash your hands afterwards.”
“Chris was playing my butt like a drum,” my son offered. Chris was grinning from ear to ear but closely examining my face.
“Very silly,” I said, “Sounds like fun.” And then I shut the door.
Later that day, I checked in with my son about this game. He told me Chris’s penis looked different from his own. It was circumcised; my son’s is intact. We talked about how my son shouldn’t force back the foreskin. It would eventually retract, and he’d see the head of his penis, just like his friend’s. We talked about anatomy. We talked about enthusiastic yeses. We built trust. I became clear about many things.
Play between children of a similar age that doesn’t emulate adult sexual acts is normal.
My son and his friend are six and seven years old, respectively. Checking each other’s body’s out is normal. Some touch is normal as well, as long as it’s not emulating adult sexual behavior. Curiosity is normal and healthy. What my son and his friend were doing stemmed out of natural curiosity.
Take a look at the guidelines if you’re concerned that what your child is doing is out of the norm.
My son and I were building trust.
After my son told me about his friend’s penis, he went on to mention he’d seen a different friend’s penis. We even went on to discuss his testicles and how they move away from his body when it’s hot and retract when it’s cold. I could see him hesitate, talk slowly, gaze at my face for a response, and once he found I was positive, he continued to speak. We are building a foundation right now, brick by brick.
How do you build trust around bodies and sexuality with your child?
Anatomy lessons are normalized.
I teach my child correct anatomical names for his and other genitals, so he can talk about them without being cute or ashamed. There’s time enough to give genitalia nicknames, but for now, he knows what’s what. He understands more and more about what’s normal in his body and for other bodies. My hope is that this normalcy will continue as he gets older. He’ll be armed with knowledge, not half-truths and shame.
What names do you give your child’s genitalia? Can your child talk about his without shame? What internal work do you need to do in order to let go of shame?
What is privacy in your family? Open door, closed door, or locked door policy?
I know some families only have an open door policy. The door may not be closed, nor may it be locked. I never grew up that way, and I want my son to know he has privacy. This includes privacy as a kid and privacy as a teenager. I trust him to tell me what’s going on and to be safe. If that changes, we’ll talk about it. I never needed to hide things from my parents because I knew there was a safe haven to talk about what was going on. I knew my parents trusted me and disappointing them was stronger than misbehaving.
What standards do you set around privacy in your family? How much do you trust your child?
My son and I talked about his friend being a yes to showing his penis. A big yes. Both of them need to be a big yes. I also told him to think about how his body feels if someone isn’t really yes, but they say they are. If he ever feels strange sensations in his own body which run counter to a person’s answer, he should listen to the sensations. Some people don’t tell the truth; they want to please. He needs to tune in and go from there.
How do you model consent in your family? What do you do when your child isn’t a big yes to hugs, kisses, and tickles?
We haven’t had another round of “Butts and Penises” since then, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. We humans are very curious creatures. We like to look and touch and compare. It’s normal. Certainly there is behavior that’s out of the norm (look at link above).
In the meantime, I’m teaching my son how to explore in the healthiest way possible: with trust, consent, and a generous dose of curiosity.