Talking About ‘Privates’

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Sometimes between the ages of 2 and 3, most children become involved in the process of toilet training. If they haven’t already begun to discover their private parts, the interest is sure to emerge now that their diaper is off and more attention is being paid to their bodily functions. And during this time, some toddlers take great delight in being nude. Both behaviors are normal, if not always socially acceptable.

Genital Exploration

When boys and girls first notice their penis or vagina, their interest is no different from when they were infants and first explored their fingers and toes. They soon discover that touching their genital area is pleasurable and may return their hands to the area again and again. A little boy may begin to notice erections – a normal, nonsexual occurrence at this age – and ask why his penis is getting big.

At this age, your toddler’s actions are not sexual. This exploration is normal. These youngsters are simply discovering their bodies.

Toddler Nudity

A related concern is nudity. Toddlers in this age group are learning to dress and undress themselves. Many youngsters prefer the undressing half of this equation and enjoy running around in the buff! Fear not – your child is not destined to become an exhibitionist.

If the environment is socially appropriate (i.e., in the privacy of your own home), let your toddler be comfortable with her body and enjoy being nude. As with most things, if you make a big deal out of this habit, your willful toddler is likely to strengthen her resolve to keep her clothes off. Take this opportunity to teach what is acceptable in a public versus a private environment, setting limits by not allowing nudity in a public space or while guests are visiting. Of course, the stage of toilet training your toddler is at may also influence how tolerant you can be! Regardless, handle your toddler’s nudity with composure, take pride in her comfort and wait for the stage to pass.

Family Nudity

At some point, your toddler may comment on or ask about the anatomy of a parent of the opposite gender, and this may make you wonder whether it is OK for her to be exposed to nudity.

Being comfortable with your own body is likely to influence your toddler positively. Indirectly, you are teaching her to be comfortable with, not ashamed of, her own body, and you are creating an environment that is conducive to discussion and questions that may be important both now and in the future.

At this young age, answer her questions simply and truthfully: “Boys have penises and girls have vaginas,” or “When boys and girls grow up, hair grows in these areas.”

— Excerpted from “The Toddler Care Book: A Complete Guide from 1 to 5 Years Old” by Dr. Jeremy Friedman, Robert Rose Inc., 2009.

Guide to Managing Genital Exploration

If your toddler’s exploration of his genitals is excessive or inappropriate in the social context, these guidelines might help:

•Try not to be embarrassed and take care not to act shocked or scold your child for this behavior. This will only teach him that embarrassment and shame are what he should feel in response to natural curiosity.

•Take the opportunity to teach your toddler the names of the relevant anatomical parts. Proper terms are to be encouraged.

•Teach your child that his genitals are private. They shouldn’t be shown to or touched by anybody, with the exception of a parent when the area is being leaned or a doctor when being examined.

•If your youngster touches himself in a public area or around guests in your home, take his hand and distract or redirect him.

•It is not unusual for children of this age to take an interest in each other’s genital area while pretending to play doctor or similar pretend play. If you see your child involved in such an interaction, tell the air that those areas are private and are not to be shown to other people. Redirect the activity.

•If you are worried that your toddler’s interest in his or others’ genitals is excessive and out of keeping with what you think is normal, consult your child’s physician. While it’s certainly not usually the case, this interest can occasionally be a sign of sexual abuse.