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On Teaching Children About Their Bodies

Categories: For Parents

Of course there are always exceptions, but most of us likely grew up experiencing one of three scenarios:

  • Your parents tried to teach you about “the birds and the bees” when you had already learned about it from conversations with peers years before. You were mortified.
  • Your parents sat you down at around age 7 or 8, and for the first time told you all about the mechanics of reproduction. You were grossed out.
  • Your parents avoided the topic altogether. You pieced things together on your own over the years.

There is another potential scenario which is a bit easier on the parents, and much easier for their children.  As you can imagine, it embraces the normalcy of the human body, honors the ever-evolving development of the child, and provides kids with healthy scaffolding in which to place their later questions and experiences.

Where do I even start?

First off, know that it is completely normal for us as parents to be uncomfortable about talking to our children about their “private parts”.  Later in life, your child may experience their own discomfort as well, so it’s a good idea to start conversations early.  Infants and toddlers already notice that certain parts of their bodies are different than others.  As parents, we can use this as an opportunity to normalize discussions about bodies, paving the way for children to have a positive attitude about their own bodies and creating an atmosphere in which they are comfortable talking about them with adults they trust.

Need a little help getting started?  Your family pediatrician is an excellent resource.  The American Academy of Pediatrics reports: “Pediatricians can introduce issues of physical, cognitive, and psychosexual development to parents and their children in early childhood and continue discussions at ongoing health maintenance visits throughout school age, adolescence, and young adulthood. Sharing this information can help overcome barriers to discussing the sexual development of all children and adolescents”. (See the AAP policy report on education here.)

What’s in a name?

When talking about anatomy, experts agree that it’s best to teach children the real names, although more common terms can be used as well.  When we talk to babies, we name their body parts, and it can be as easy as continuing the proper usage when it comes to genitalia.  Naming nose, elbow, chin, penis, and vulva conveys the message to children that these are simply parts of our bodies.  By refraining from using the actual terms, we might convey the message that those parts are something negative or that there might be shame associated with them.  Once your child is familiar with biological terminology, it’s not a bad idea to teach them about common societal words as well, or words that might be used in your family.  For example, it’s great for your child to know what urination is, but it’s also okay for them to know that many people just say ‘pee’.

How can we approach other topics?

Children are great at asking surprising questions at very random moments.  When this happens, it may help to keep three points in mind:

  1. Listen carefully to the question.  What is actually being asked? It’s easy to assume they want to know more than they actually do!
  2. It’s okay to acknowledge the question but postpone answering.  You can tell your child that you need a little time to consider your answer.  Take the time to decide what your family feels is developmentally appropriate, but make sure you follow up.
  3. What feels taboo to us as adults generally is not taboo to small children.  Know that you are likely much more embarrassed than they are, especially if they are asking the question in the first place!

How can we protect our kids?

An important way that we can help keep our kids safe is to teach them body autonomy – early, often, and consistently.  Tell your children outright: “You are in charge of your body.”  Bring this up whenever a good moment presents itself and ask them: “Who is in charge of your body?”  This means that they never need to hug or kiss anyone they don’t want to, even if it’s grandma (or you!), and even if they have hugged them before.  At a certain point you may even want to begin asking your child whether they would like a hug or kiss goodnight.  This will help them feel empowered, giving them the confidence and skills they will need later in life.

On the flip side, make sure children know body autonomy applies to everyone.  If they begin playing too rough and don’t listen to your requests to stop jumping on you, remind them, “I am in charge of my body.  I need you to respect that.”  Modeling the language in a teachable moment will show them what it really means and how they can do the same.

Remember when we mentioned the importance of teaching children the correct biological terms for their body parts?  Educators and abuse experts agree that this knowledge might help protect your child against abuse or give them the courage to talk about it if it happens.  Additionally, if a child tells an abuser not to touch them, and uses correct terminology, the abuser will have a sense of the child’s understanding and this could potentially deter them.

Are there any helpful resources available?

Yes!  There are!  Sometimes having a well-illustrated and informative book can really help facilitate the conversation.  The following series, written by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emerley, has been on the New York Times’ bestseller list and has been appreciated by parents and children for over twenty years.  The content is direct, factual, and age-appropriate. There are three books intended for different age groups:

Ms. Searcy and Dr. Bilezikian use this series as a resource when discussing body awareness, human development, and the reproduction system.  Many families have purchased this series over the years and appreciate its direct approach.

For ages 4+

It’s NOT the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends

For ages 7+

It’s So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families

For ages 10+

It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health

As always, please reach out if you have any questions, or anything to add to the topi