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Talking With Children About Their Bodies

Between the ages of two and six, young children begin to show a natural interest in their bodies and the bodies of others, especially those who are different from them in gender or maturity. You will likely be bombarded with questions as your child tries to make sense of his identity.

Convey that the body and its functions are natural and healthy, and teach boys and girls about the anatomy of both sexes. Tell girls that their bodies are as marvelously equipped as male bodies. Boys may need to be reassured that their private parts will not fall off. Both boys and girls should be told how they will change as they grow older so they won’t be scared about growing up.

Life will provide you with many teachable moments. If your responses are insensitive, a child can quickly become ashamed, confused, or reluctant to talk about these matters.

Child experts offer these pointers when talking to your preschooler about sexual identity:

  • Use a straight face, matter-of-fact attitude, sense of humor, and your own knowledge when faced with your child’s questions. Remember to keep things simple.
  • It is never too early to respond to your child’s questions or curiosity about sexual identity. The earlier you start, the more natural it becomes.
  • Take advantage of any opportunity your child gives you to talk about sexual matters. Answer early questions about body differences by clearly stating the facts. Say “Girls and boys are made differently. Girls have a vagina, and boys have a penis.”
  • Avoid misnaming body parts or sharing fantasy explanations (the stork brought you).When your preschooler tells you, “My teacher has a baby in her tummy,” explain simply that the baby is in her uterus.
  • If you’re in public and your three-year-old son says, “My penis itches,” calmly say, “Can it wait, or do you need to take care of it now?” Then explain, “This is something you say in your quiet voice.” This way, you avoid shame and guilt and let him know the difference between public and private behaviors.
  • Keep in mind that your child’s preschool or friends’ families may use other words for body parts or explain things somewhat differently. Keep lines of communication open and reinforce the words you prefer to use.
  • Answer your child honestly and in a way most comfortable for you. Associate sexual identity with personal responsibility.

The following books can help:

  • What’s the Big Secret?: Talking About Sex with Girls and Boys by Laurie Krasny Brown.
  • How to Talk To Your Kids about Really Important Things: For Children Four to Twelve, by C.E. Schaefer and T.F. Digeronimo.

Prepared by: Patti Faughn, Family Life Educator, Springfield Center and Geraldine Peeples, Extension Specialist, Family Life, Department of Human and Community Development. Spring 2006

Editor: Phyllis Picklesimer, Media Communications Specialist, News & Public Affairs, Information Technology and Communications Services