Toddlers and Bodily Exploration

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

My two year old daughter is really into body parts these days and can name them all. With the potty causing some excitement, “potty talk” and body parts have been almost all she talks about these days.

We were at the beach last week with another couple and their daughter (about 17 months old). The girls were running around naked and playing in the sand/water as you would expect. My daughter was curious about her friend and started giggling and touching her bottom. I was upset – on the one hand my daughter is an innocent child with a very outgoing personality and is curious about everything, on the other hand I felt really uncomfortable that her curiosity was at the expense of another child.

I immediately pulled my daughter away and said quite sternly “we do not touch other people’s bottoms.” I was really shaken up and even felt angry towards my child for this behavior – but again I tried to keep in mind her age and innocence. Honestly, I feel completely confused.

Am I overreacting? Am I jaded in thinking that today’s world is so screwed up that something I truly believe was coming from an innocent place could be seen as bad?

I am not sure how to handle this with my child in future situations (I was thinking about finding a book to explain our bodies and what is appropriate in regards to touching and such). There is a fine line and I am not sure where to draw it or if it needs to be drawn at all at this stage.

We are an open family and want our daughter to love and respect her body and not be ashamed of it. I would appreciate any help.

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Amy: Your daughter will appreciate you encouraging her to love her body and not feel shameful. In your conscientiousness you can heal any lingering shame or questions you may have so you’re sure to communicate what you need to about our bodies – sexuality included.

I say sexuality because that is what this is about. If our bottoms weren’t the center of our sexuality we wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable when our children start touching themselves, others, or talking about the parts of the body related to sexuality. I imagine just reading the word sexuality a few times in the same sentence with the word children is enough to bring about uncomfortable feelings for many parents.

Your response at the beach sounds like it comes from the exact questions you’ve asked. Is curiosity or touching another child’s bottom the innocence of a child? Could others view it as otherwise – even harmful? How can you respond and teach your daughter what is appropriate without delivering shame? I’m so glad you ask these questions because in answering them for yourself you cultivate a relationship with your daughter based on your choices, instead of what is handed to you by society.

Your daughter’s curiosity is natural. She is in a moment-to-moment experience of finding out what’s appropriate and what’s not. The sexual body parts and those used for elimination hold lots of emotional energy – both in pleasure (yes, from birth) and in the way we relate to them. Children can feel the energy around those areas and the words we use for them. At the same time, little kids often relate to them as commonly as a nose or ears until we distinguish the body parts from others. This is where it gets tricky and shame often gets inadvertently added.

The more certain or matter-of-fact you are about sexual body parts, the more your daughter has room to explore her world while feeling safe within boundaries. Thomas Haller, Parenting and Relationship Expert, provides clear information about what your child should know when about sex in his article, “What Children Should Know About Sex Through the Developmental Stages.” As you read through, you may jot down any hesitancy or shame you have around communicating with your child and find a trusted friend or other person who can assist you in liberating the shame. It doesn’t have to be passed down. There’s nothing wrong with the parts of the body related to sexuality; it is our ideas about them that carry the shame.

Someone else may perceive a child’s actions as harmful or inappropriate, but that does not mean you need to relate to your child as if that was her intention. It is likely that your friend was feeling as confused as you. Opening the conversation by sharing how you feel may allow you both to work through whatever uncomfortable feelings you have. She may welcome the opportunity to discuss her child’s budding interest in the body as well.

There are boundaries around sexuality in our cultures. Parenting brings them up big time. To become aware of your own biases you might write a list of ideas or beliefs you have about sexuality and sexual body parts that don’t feel good to you. On the opposite side of the page write what you want to feel about sexuality and the sexual body parts. It may sound simple, but highlighting these beliefs is the first step to liberating yourself and really focusing on what you want for your family.

Enjoy your daughter and take this one experience at a time. Young children gradually ask for more information, but it is often less than we initially think. They don’t have decades of experience with the words or terms and aren’t looking for that. They just need clear, concise answers and support in loving their bodies just as they are.

Shae: I would recommend being gentle on both yourself and your child. We are sent so many messages today about sexual abuse and sexualized children it’s hard not to react in a fearful way towards bodily exploration. But know that at two years old the game is out of pure curiosity, and the other child would not feel victimized either because there is no sexual nature to the game.

A bottom, vulva or penis are the same as an earlobe to a two year old, and coming on too strong when redirecting can make those private areas shameful and can even encourage a much more keen interest if they seem “forbidden.” I found the article, “Let’s Play Doctor . . . Sexual Games and Young Children” has a pretty good clinical explanation, although I don’t necessarily agree with the “clothes on” rule at such a young age.

Two is an amazing age, the world is unfolding and they want to learn as much as they can about it. The fact that she is able to talk openly about all her body parts says to me that she is free from shame, as all children should be. Keep being open with her about all parts of the body, but you can introduce the idea that there are some parts that are private and not for anyone else to touch (but that might be a bit heavy for a two year old to grasp). If the touching happened again I would gently redirect with no fuss or bother with something exactly like what you said “that’s so and so’s bottom, it’s just for her to touch”.

Remember that for your daughter it really is no big deal, and she’s interested in another child’s vulva or bottom just like she would be interested in their hair, comparing it to see how it is different from hers and others she knows. She is not trying to sexually abuse the other child or bully them. It can be very confronting to see children freely exploring their bodies and showing interest in others, when we were probably given very clear messages about this sort of thing being dirty or inappropriate.
My kids have a book called “Everyone’s Got a Bottom” that is used to educate children about what is OK and what is not when it comes to their own bodies. It uses all the correct terms and can be a good way to start a conversation. Again, I wonder how much of this might be not very age appropriate for a two year old and may be more suited to older kids.

I think the main thing to keep in mind would be that your child is not doing anything wrong or with any intent on harming another child.

Go gently.

Seonaid: I feel I should start with a disclaimer: this may be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. Because even though I feel in principle that we make too big a deal of such things, and even though intellectually, I want my children to grow up loving their bodies, I am deeply uncomfortable actually thinking about the sexual development of children, let alone talking about it. So, I’ve tried. I hope it helps, but please know I’m just muddling through, here.

First, take a deep breath. Because there isn’t a quick fix for this one. The rules about body modesty and boundaries take a long time to master, so you need to be prepared to have this conversation many times, with increasing levels of subtlety, probably over a period of years. It’s a good idea to practice now, while she is young. It sounds like you are unhappy with your reaction, more than concerned about the situation itself, so let me start by reassuring you that I’m pretty sure your intuitions (and mine) are on the money: This is an innocent act, but people might not perceive it that way.

For a two-year old, a bottom is just another body part worth investigating. It’s usually hidden, so to actually see a bum is intriguing. And young children investigate things by poking at them. This kind of exploration isn’t considered a problem by developmental experts as long as it is between children of similar ages, even if those similar ages get into the 4 to 6 range, rather than toddlers. It’s only really an issue if there is a significant age difference. The recommended approach to finding your children “playing doctor” is to calmly get them to get dressed, distract them with something else, and leave the discussion until later when you are both calm.

I had to look that up for this question, because it is an area where I don’t trust my intuition either. And when I came upon this strategy, I found myself thinking, “Six? Six year olds want to explore sexual play?” And then I took a deep breath. And I went back to read Sierra Black’s essay, “Naked Sex With Barbies” again, because she’s got some great language in there about boundaries and feelings and good and bad experiences that we would all do well to incorporate. Also, she managed to use them on the fly in the middle of a challenging out-of-the-blue situation.

Following her lead, and that recommended by the experts, we do need to start talking about boundaries early, often, and calmly. My personal practice with my three year old (who is starting to get better about it) is the same language as yours, almost word for word. “No, honey. We don’t touch other people’s bums/bottoms/nipples/penises.” This works for the most part, but it isn’t subtle, and if we want to make sure that our children grow up with the ability to enjoy their bodies, we are going to need more complex approaches as they get older. A book is a great idea, (and I hope that other mentors have good suggestions) but if you are concerned about your ability to stay calm, you might also want to practice saying whatever you are going to choose to say, so that you have it all ready to deal with the next situation.

Photo Credit: simmbarb

8 Responses to Toddlers and Bodily Exploration

  1. Alicia C.  

    Wow… that’s all I have to say. I remember, when my now 13 y.o. was around 2. We used to play “Get your butt”, just a chase game – we’d act like we were going to get him and he’d run away screaming and laughing. It was fun. Then, one day, he ran up to my husband in the store, patted his butt, and ran away yelling (at the top of his lungs), “GET YOUR BUTT DADDY!!” Yeah, we got some pretty nasty looks. It was all in innocent fun, but we realized that society at large wasn’t going to stand for it. Instead of telling him he couldn’t play that game, we slowly evolved it into “Get your leg/arm/belly/etc.”
    Now that I have another toddler who is becoming very interested in body parts, we’re going through it all over again. In the library the other day, he informed the librarian that “I have a ‘winky’, but Mommy doesn’t.” I’m glad she is a mom, too, because she nodded her head and heartily agreed! I need to check out some of the links here because not everyone is going to react that way!

  2. Seonaid  

    Wow, Amy, what an awesome answer. Given how much trouble I had with this one, I’m going to try out some of your suggestions around shame and the body. Thanks so much.

    • Amy  

      You’re welcome, Seonaid. I offer a class called Empowered Sexuality for parents to work through this type of stuff. It runs deep. I don’t have a date scheduled for the next series, but I’ll post a link here when it’s ready if it’s okay with Dionna & Lauren. :)

  3. Mama Mo @ Attached at the Nip

    I appreciate the advice and links included above, but I do have one follow-up question. If we tell our children, “We don’t touch other people’s vulva/penis/bottom” yet they are still of an age when they need assistance bathing, isn’t that sending a mixed message? Because as a parent, you will be touching your child’s body to help him/her clean it. This is a very thought-provoking topic, and I’m glad to see it addressed here. Thanks!

  4. jaime bower

    with regard to children exploring their bodies- if they are social “diddlers” as mine can be- take their hands gently into your own, make eye contact and compassionately say “I bet that feels good, but that kind of touching can be done in your room, alone.” There is no shame in admitting the touching they are doing to themselves feels good- it likely does- but you need to introduce a boundary that some touching is ok in public and other touching it better reserved for “private time”.

    as far as bathing and mixed messages go- it’s ok to add a layer of boundaries- I tell my 3yo that it’s ok for her to hug a friend and hold a hand, but only mommy daddy and the doctor are supposed to help take care of her body. She seems to get it and she doesn’t “molest” her friends past a hug or hand holding.

  5. Acrophile

    I always told mine that “your body is not a toy” at the early ages of exploration (2-3). No shame, just matter-of-fact. When they got older it became a talk about boundaries “No one is to touch your private body parts. NO one. Doctor or Mom or Dad do when we have to help keep you clean or healthy, but that’s it. They are covered for a reason. They are private. If anyone touches you, you come tell Mom or Dad right away and we’ll make them stop. You won’t be in trouble.”

  6. Momma Jorje

    The “get your butt” game is SO common! And I’ve seen where it can nearly get folks in trouble. I had a friend who picked his child up from preschool and the little boy came running out to him (his mom usually picked him up, so he was extra excited) yelling, “Get my butt, Daddy!”

    We also play “squishy butt” with our 1½yo when she is running around naked. It is good, clean fun around here. In fact, I walk around naked a lot and she takes great joy in poking my bum, too. Daddy, on the other hand, is a little less comfortable and stays in shorts.

    I like the suggestion of evolving the game to “get your arm, leg, etc” and we’re kind of doing that already as she is learning her body parts.

    Great question and answers, too!

  7. Sheila  

    My mom always just told me, “If it’s covered by your swimsuit, it’s for no one but you to touch.” That was all I needed to know — very simple from an early age!

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