Touchy Subject

Written by NPN Guest on November 15th, 2011

Body Image, Healthy Living, Responding With Sensitivity
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Not long after our daughter discovered she had hands, she also discovered she had a vulva. That’s right, a vulva. I said it. I’m sure as natural parents, we all want our children to have a healthy view of their bodies. That may include knowing the name of his or her body parts. That may simply mean feeling no shame.

There should be no shame associated with their bodies or exploring them.

That said, a toddler exploring his or her own body may make others uncomfortable. Having the freedom to explore themselves doesn’t have to mean disrespecting another person’s comfort levels. I like to be naked. A lot. I’m a borderline nudist myself and have no problem being naked in front of my daughters, including the one that is in the middle of puberty. In fact, I recently paused (in private) to explain that shaving was a personal preference and wasn’t something anyone should feel was necessary.

When she was a toddler, she also liked to explore her body. It is natural. I plan to take the same approach with our youngest that I did with her. I simply told her that touching her vulva was something she could do in private. I reiterated that it was something that should not be done in front of others.

The trouble with this approach right now is that our 1 year old doesn’t understand “in private” and as far as the privacy of her room? We’re still in a family bed. When my older daughter started exploring, she already had her own bed. To further complicate things (understandably so), my husband is uncomfortable with our daughter exploring her private body parts when they are… aimed at him. It seems to happen all the time. I’ll have a naked baby in my lap, nursing, and she’ll be checking out her equipment.

I believe I have found a way to support his comfort level as well as her freedom. I simply turn her away or shield his vision with my arm. Being so young, I also occasionally have to remind her to be nice to her own body. She can be rough, just like when she pokes Daddy in the eye or kicks him in the teeth.

There will, I’m sure, be other bumps in the road along the way. For instance, she will sometimes stare at my vulva or even reach out for it. With a toddler, I generally use distraction. I don’t want her to feel shame about her curiosity, but I won’t have her touching my own private body parts, either. And Daddy? Well he tends to cover himself because he is uncomfortable when she stares at his penis. I always try to see things from her perspective and can totally understand why she might find it fascinating! She only sees it when Daddy is headed to/from the shower or bed, so I imagine it maintains a newness to her. I’ve tried to tell him that letting her get the staring out of her system might help, but we have to respect his privacy, too. Besides, I’m sure it would only be a matter of time before she would reach for that, too.

How have you approached this touchy subject with your little ones? Has there been a difference between daughter/father and son/mother interactions in your family? I hope to add a son to our family and I wonder how we’ll feel about these same topics in that situation.

Photo Credit: adedip

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Momma Jorje is a slightly crunchy momma (and wife!) embracing her crunchiness and striving to be ever crunchier. She is passionate about breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby signing, elimination communication, and general attachment parenting. She writes at Momma Jorje.

21 Responses to Touchy Subject

  1. Gaby@Tmuffin  

    I always hated saying fake words for body parts, so we call Baby T’s penis a penis. (Although Big T regularly calls it his junk. Or his gens, after he saw Jim Morrison call it that on a Doors documentary).

    At daycare, his caregiver said to me one day that she had asked him something about his “Pee Pee.” And Baby T said, “No, it’s my penis.” And the caregiver said how smart he was. I was thinking, “Not smart, just…accurate…” I guess a lot of people make up names for body parts.

    Nakedness and private parts are a strange thing in our culture. We try not to do anything to make Baby T think any part of his body is negative in any way. But he’s also not that curious. He never touched himself like other babies do and he doesn’t ask why I don’t have a penis.

    I like how you handle it: distraction and just stressing that it’s something to be done in private and it’s perfectly ok.

    • Momma Jorje

      Doctors take patients much more seriously when they use the proper terminology. If you tell the doctor that you have a problem “down there,” they are more likely to talk down to you or not give you full information. I feel it is absolutely important that people be comfortable with accurate terminology.

      Imagine that, a boy that isn’t always playing with his junk! lol

  2. JennyOH

    My daughter has never really explored her vulva (she’s two now) but since she always bathes with me or my husband, and we are fine with nudity around the house, she’s seen plenty of our bodies. However, beyond pointing at her daddy and shouting “PENIS!” she hasn’t gotten interested to the point that either of us are uncomfortable. We always use the real names for body parts, and just figured we’d start enforcing more privacy when any of the three of us feel like we need it.

    • Momma Jorje

      It sounds like you’re off to a great start! I’ve always given my daughters lots of naked time, which I think may explain their early exploration.

      Just enforcing more privacy as it feels appropriate is the way to go, follow your family’s lead as their needs change and develop.

  3. Erica Douglas

    I want to use real words with my six month old DD but vagina isn’t a very pretty word and it’s not accurate anyway. She doesn’t grab her vagina, she grabs her vulva.

    • Momma Jorje

      Definitely! It drives me nuts when others refer to it as a vagina. No, trust me, you are NOT seeing a vagina in a movie or on a naked person in front of you – it is a vulva.

      Amusingly, my youngest has been getting her vulva and butt confused lately. I tell her to pat-pat-pat her butt and she pats her vulva. lol (She has to pat front and back after peeing.)

      That makes me wonder… if there is a more appropriate term for a butt…

  4. Acacia Moore

    Great post, Jorge. We have the same approach around here. I am hoping that later on, without shame for our bodies, sex will be an easier subject to talk about with the boys, feeling like it, too, is just a normal part of life.

    • Momma Jorje

      Exactly! I think shyness and embarrassment about our bodies leads directly to the same feelings about sex talk. I’d have to say this approach has worked. I have been fairly comfortable discussing sex with my older daughter.

  5. Alicia C.  

    Yep – Little Guy LOVES his penis and “tes-ki-cles” and almost has one hand down there, making everything is still there. And who knew that jumping on the bed was so much more fun when you could watch your penis jump right along with you?
    My husband and I have no problem with being naked around him – mostly in the shower. He knows “no touching other people’s private parts” rule but his curiosity often gets the best of him, so we’re constantly reminding him.

    My oldest and my stepson (both teens) were very embarrassed over “naked baby” for a while, but they’ve both gotten over it. And when we have visitors, I warn them that he’s naked. Then I ask if they’d prefer I toss some pants on him. Some ask for the pants, others don’t – no big deal to me either way!

    • Momma Jorje

      I’m not very good at remembering the comfort level of guests, but most are amused (and surprised!) to see my youngest run through the room bare-butted or completely naked.

      And who knew that jumping on the bed was so much more fun when you could watch your penis jump right along with you?

      That is hilarious! I don’t know why I didn’t think of that! I’m sure I’ll learn first hand soon enough (when we have our own son). :-)

      Here’s a funny one for you… we often have “Family Pee” where Mommy, Daddy, and youngest all go at the same time. We did that today at the doc, so I had to pee in a cup. (This has happened once before.) Youngest was fascinated and practically stuck her head between my knees while I was peeing! lol

  6. Melodie  

    I have a funny story to tell. My youngest daughter was always fascinated by looking at her dad’s penis as a toddler too. Like your husband, he too, was very uncomfortable with it, but understood it was healthy and normal, yaddy yadda. One day when he was just getting out of the shower the door bell rang and my oldest ran and got it. It was the mail carrier with a package for one of us and my husband needed to sign for it. So my oldest went and got him and he shouted down that he would be right there. While he’s quickly getting dried off and dressed my daughter, in her very loud voice was asking him “Daddy, is that your penis? Can I touch it?” My husband was mortified and red-faced answered the door, signed his name and told me the mail lady appeared to fly out the door. He was certain child protective services would be called, but thankfully no one came. Maybe she had kids too and understood the natural curiosity. One can only hope so!

    • Momma Jorje

      OMG, my jaw dropped but I also laughed! What an awkward situation! I believe my father tells a story of myself and at least one other child grabbing his penis while he was peeing!

      I had a friend that was picking up his young stepson from preschool (or daycare?). He wasn’t usually the one that picked the boy up, but was raising the boy as his own. The little boy ran out to him yelling “Get my butt, Daddy, get my butt!” :-D

  7. Amy  

    I appreciate this article, Jorje, thank you for writing it. :)

    In my experience little ones often explore in ways that adults are uncomfortable with when the adult holds shame about that area of the body. It’s like a mirror effect. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing that children do, more just the nature of the parent-child relationship.

    What I’ve found helpful are similar approaches – working through my own stuff around sexuality, normalizing those parts of the body, communicating accurate terms, and not making a big deal out of it.

    Of course a child is going to be curious about a vulva or penis, they are also curious about noses and eyes. Little children often don’t have the shame attached so they’re just naturally curious. It’s another body part.

    Once they see that it holds an emotional reaction from an adult, some children find it all the more interesting.

    So, to me, it’s up to us as parents to work through our own shame and uncomfortable feelings so we don’t inadvertently pass them on to the kids. A big job but we pretty much signed up for it when we decided to become parents. :)

    • Momma Jorje

      Exactly. Little ones poke you in the eye when you’re teaching them about their own eyes. They grab your lips when you teach them to find their mouth. Why wouldn’t they want to explore other parts? I think the trick is definitely to not make too big a deal out of it, but this is also a good time to start teaching them that some areas are not for others to touch.

      I have to admit, though, when I tell her no one else is supposed to touch her vulva, I find myself fretting a little about it sticking with her into marriage. Though I’m sure puberty, hormones and later open discussions about sex will get her past that!

  8. Janine  

    My son reaches for hid daddy’s penis when he gets out of the shower. My husband usually just laughs and says, “That’s my penis. You have one too.” I suspect it would be vastly different if it were a daughter though, and he’d probably cover up.

    My son is mildly interested in my pubic hair but usually just gets distracted by my belly, which he loves to poke! When I’m naked he slaps me on the butt which cracks me up – He’s only one! If him or my future kids cross a line I think we’ll just say, “Mine!” or “That’s not yours” the same way we do with breakable or valuable items around the house.

    • Momma Jorje  

      My daughters are now 3½ and 14½ (gotta get those halves, right?). These days we have to explain to the young one that body parts belong to a person and she has to respect “no” when she hears it. Otherwise, she thinks it hilarious to grope and poke her sister’s breasts!

  9. featherstory  

    We’re naked in our home a lot. We have two girls and my daughter has been aware of her “yoni” since she could speak. I think because she likes to use her own words, she calls penis’ ‘pee things’. Both kids have at times reached for adult parts and it has usually not been gentle, so it is easy to just say “ouch” and they get that they shouldn’t do that, but with my oldest (4) I started to introduce her to the idea of “personal space” when she was about 2, and that included not touching certain parts of other people and making sure to watch our for unintentionally hurting or making someone uncomfortable and not letting anyone touch her in her personal spaces.

  10. Stacy @ Sweet Sky

    My boys were always naked a lot when they were younger… just naturally transitioning into being more clothed as time went on. Under the age of three, they often were naked or with underwear only. (We ec’d, too.)

    Both of them touched their penises A LOT. I remember reading that this can help the natural process of the foreskin (if they’re uncirc’d) becoming unattached. So I always figured it was a good thing. Of course, as they got older, I helped them understand that touching themselves in that way is something they can do in private. :)

  11. melissa aka equidae

    Now that is something to think about really. IT never occured to me but yes we use different words for our private parts than the real name. However its not out of shame I can conclude but as a default setting since everyone else does so….

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