Teaching kids about their bodies and what is private can be tricky. But parents can help kids develop healthy feelings about their bodies in age-appropriate ways. This also helps kids learn what’s not OK, which can help protect them from sexual abuse.
When Do Kids Start to Get Curious About Their Bodies?
From as early as infancy, kids are interested in learning about their own bodies.
Babies and toddlers often will touch their own genitals when they're naked, such as in the bathtub or while being diapered. This behavior is part of normal curiosity. Kids shouldn't be scolded or punished for exploring.
Some parents choose to casually ignore self-touching or redirect a child's attention toward something else. Others may want to acknowledge that, while it’s OK for kids to check out their bodies, it is a private matter and not OK to do in public.
Is it OK to Use Nicknames for Private Parts?
It’s good for parents to use the correct names for body parts. These words — penis, vagina, etc. — should be stated matter-of-factly, with no implied silliness. That way, kids learn to use them in a direct manner, without embarrassment.
What if You Catch Kids "Playing Doctor"?
Kids 3 to 6 years old are most likely to "play doctor." Many parents overreact when they witness or hear of kids showing private parts to each other. Heavy-handed scolding is not the way to deal with it. Often, the presence of a parent is enough to interrupt the play.
You may wish to direct your child's attention to another activity without making a lot of fuss. Later, sit down with your child for a talk. Explain that although you understand the interest in their friend's body, people are generally expected to keep their bodies covered in public. This way you have set limits without having made your child feel guilty.
This is also an appropriate age to begin to talk about good touch and bad touch. Tell kids that their bodies are their own and that they have the right to privacy. No one, not even a friend or family member, has the right to touch a child's private areas. Sometimes, a parent may need to check a child’s genital area if there is pain or discomfort there, and a doctor or nurse will need to look if they are doing a physical exam.
Kids should know that if anyone ever touches them in a way that feels strange or bad, they should tell that person to stop it and then tell you about it. Explain that you want to know about anything that makes your kids feel bad or uncomfortable.
These websites offer more information on protecting kids from abuse and teaching kids about boundaries and their bodies: