Talk Sex with Mary
Today, boys and girls, we are going to tackle the prickly question of your child's sexual health and development.
I am not addressing those parents who talk easily about the topic with their children. This post is not for those who have no trouble labelling all their child's body bits. This is not for those of you who find it funny when your baby boy discovers the joys of that little item under his diaper, or your baby girl announces to you while in the tub "Hole, momma! Gotsa hole!"
You! You in the back row, who winced when you read that "hole" line - this post is for you. The first and biggest thing that needs to be said to those squeamish parents, in very kind, compassionate, but firm tones, is "Get over yourselves". For your child's sake.
This is not about you, this is about your child. Get over your own reaction enough to see this from your child's perspective. Your child, who is miles and miles and years and years away from sex. (Unless there is something seriously wrong in your family, in which case you should not be reading this, but seeking out family therapy and perhaps legal assistance, now if not sooner.)
Do you want your child to have a healthy, happy attitude to sex and sexuality? Do you want them to be a sexually mature adult? Do you want them to be a teen who knows how to say no with assurance, who knows how to protect themselves should they decide to say yes? Who will always know it is their choice, their right to say no - or yes - who won't indulge too early in order to prove something, or from a sense of obligation or coercion?
It starts now, mommies and daddies. It starts now, when your children are discovering their bodies.
To your toddler, those bits under the diaper are no more nor less significant and interesting than any other bit on their body. SO: a penis is no more interesting than an ear; a vagina no more fascinating than a bellybutton. Try to imagine being two, when those bits are just bits like any other.
You parents of boys will be less able to avoid this than girls. Boys discover their wee joysticks from the moment they gain control of their hands. Girls take longer - boys have it easy from day one; it's the injustice of nature - but be assured that your daughter will discover there's a hole down there, probably in the tub, and probably before she's two. Sometime around then she'll probably also discover the joys of her clitoris, even though, unlike her brother, she may never get to see the source of that feeling.
Before you grab their hand and yoink it away, think about this from the perspective of a total innocent. YOU know this is about sexuality; your child knows two things, and two things only: they've found an interesting bit; and it feels good.
"IT FEELS GOOD?!? I thought you said this wasn't about sex!?!?" I can hear you shrieking in horror.
Well, yes, it feels good. Is there something wrong with that? It feels good for a baby to taste something sweet - which is why they guzzle breast milk the way they do. It feels good for a baby to be held and carressed - which is why they sleep in your arms. It feels good to sleep soundly, to have the sun warm your skin, to hear your mommy and daddy's voice reading to you, to laugh, to drink when you're thirsty, to eat when you're hungry, to wake to the smell of coffee - oh wait, that one's mine! And it also feels good to touch your own skin, and your own under-the-diaper bits. Once again: for a small child, there is no difference in significance amongst all these things that bring pleasure. If it's okay to enjoy eating, it's okay to enjoy touching oneself. (And it is!)
Biologically, sex is about procreation; psychologically it's about love and power and bonding and a host of other things; physically, which is where your tot is right now, it's about pleasure. And there's nothing wrong with that. The moral aspects of sex and sexuality come into play when the child is older, when they become consciously aware of their sexuality, when they start to express it in interaction with another sexual being.
Right now, at age two, they're pre-moral, sexually. Right now, moms and dads, it's EASY - easy for you. Start now, and you can enter the world of sex and sexuality in wee little baby steps. So, please, be kind to yourselves and start now. Enter the waters a baby step at a time, let it become just one of the many things you talk about with your child. It's either that or plunge in headfirst into cold and murky waters, when they're almost a teen and totally mortified by your sudden interest. Interest which, after a life-time of silence from you on the subject, they will only see as embarassing and utterly prurient.
The first step is to relax. Your child is learning, learning, learning all the time. One of the things they’re learning about is their own body. They are not preparing for a life of sexual debauchery; they’ve just discovering another body part, like they discovered their hands around three months old, and their toes at six.
So, when you catch your child exploring their genitalia, understand that they play with it in the same way they pick their noses, or poke around with their bellybutton, or suck their thumb: because it's there, because they like to. And. That's. It. Nothing bigger, nothing scarier.
Just as you would tell your child to use a tissue, not their finger when they pick their nose, and wash their hands afterwards, just as you would merely smile when they play with their navel, so you can simply smile when they play with things below the navel, move their hands so you can finish the diaper change, and then wash their hands as you wash your own, after the diaper change. The message you send should not be "Agh! Stop doing that nasty, dirty thing!!" The message you send need only be, "Move your hands so mummy/daddy can finish changing your diaper, please."
Just as they will learn that there is a time and place to scratch their bum, pluck their eyebrows, floss their teeth and sundry other activities, they will learn there is a time and place to mess about with their private bits. Not while you're changing their diaper, thanks, but not because it's shocking or nasty, but simply because you want to get the diaper changed.
When they're a little older and they want the words for their body parts, give them. How did you tell them the label for "ear"? If you can give your child the name for their ear, their nose, their bellybutton, you can give your child the label for their penis, their vulva, their labia. Practice it with me now: lay-bee-ah. You can do it. When you give them the word for "ankle", "chin", or "elbow", are you tense with anxiety? Of course not. So give them the words for their private parts - give them the proper, medically accurate words - without fuss and flurry. Or, if you can't help yourself, keep your fuss and flurry to yourself. Repeat after me: "it means nothing to them, it means nothing to them, it's just like their elbow or knee".
That conversation that you will want to have with your child as they approach their teens? The one where you give them facts and information that will keep them safe and healthy? That conversation starts now.
Start now, start early. Be calm, be natural, (or fake it, if it isn't natural to you to be calm about this subject), be matter-of-fact. If you start now, you can take it in baby steps. "That's your penis" today; discussions of what it's theoretically for a few years from now; conversations about safe sex for someone considering actually practising it a few years after that.
Do you want a child who can come to you with these concerns? A child who will let you know at least some of what's going on with them sexually? Who doesn't fear telling you about the pressure he/she may be feeling to get involved before s/he's ready? If you want to be there for your child when they enter the sometimes scary waters of adult sexuality - and that day will come! - then you have to be there for them now, letting them know it's okay, and you're okay with it.
Do it for your child's sake.
~~~~~~~~~~~~ © 2005, Mary P