There’s no shortage of serious conversations parents should have with their children. And in the age of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, one fundamental lesson is the importance of our bodies and bodily autonomy.
“Body awareness talks are the earliest conversations parents can have with young children to support their health and safety,” sex educator Melissa Carnagey said. Conversations about body parts and bodily autonomy lay the foundation for understanding consent and sexual misconduct.
To inform these early discussions, HuffPost spoke to Carnagey and sex educator Lydia M. Bowers about the best ways to explore the topic of private parts and bodily autonomy with young kids.
Here are their expert-backed guidelines and tips for parents and caregivers to keep in mind.
Use The Proper Terms For Body Parts
“Body parts are body parts are body parts,” Bowers said, emphasizing that “penis,” “testicles,” “vulva” and “vagina” are not bad words. Parents should become comfortable using these terms or the corresponding words if they speak a language other than English at home.
“Often without hesitation, caregivers will use accurate terms for body parts like elbow, knee and nose, so parts like the penis, vulva, vagina and anus should be no different,” said Carnagey.
There are several reasons children should learn the proper terms for private parts instead of nicknames. One is that having the right language and context helps kids communicate clearly about their bodies. This is important in the context of telling a doctor or caregiver where something hurts or itches.
“When we avoid saying words, we instill a sense of shame, of something to be avoided or hidden.”
– Lydia M. Bowers, sex educator
“Using accurate terms also better prepares them to talk confidently about changes they may experience to their body as they grow, especially to medical providers or in settings where they may be learning about their health,” Carnagey added.
“When we avoid saying words, we instill a sense of shame, of something to be avoided or hidden,” Bowers said. She added that using the correct terms is useful in teaching kids how to keep their bodies clean and healthy. “For proper hygiene, there’s a difference in how the bottom or the penis or the vulva are wiped and washed.”
Avoid Cutesy Language
Although it is tempting to use euphemisms and cutesy language when talking to little kids about their bodies, this can lead to problems.
“One issue is that there are so many alternate terms and many of them have other meanings. This can be risky because it can lead to a child being misunderstood by others, especially if they have experienced unsafe touch to that part of their body and need to report it,” said Carnagey.
Kids should be able to identify body parts as private and correctly name them so that they can communicate if they’ve been touched inappropriately.
“We sometimes give nicknames for body parts ― like ‘piggies’ and ‘noggin.’ But just like we also teach children those parts are actually called ‘toes’ and ‘head,’ they need to know real private-part terms as well,” Bowers explained. “If we’re using cutesy names because we’re embarrassed or ashamed to say the actual terms, we’re perpetuating the idea that some body parts are dirty, bad or shameful.”
Promote Bodily Autonomy In Everyday Situations
“Creating a home culture where everyone’s body boundaries are respected is an important step,” Carnagey said. Parents can do this by not forcing their kids to share affection with others and by getting in the habit of asking for touch ― for example, saying “May I give you a hug?” rather than “Give me a hug.”
Carnagey advised that parents not dismiss unwanted touch between siblings or family members as play.
“In our home, for example, we have an agreement that no one should have to repeat ‘no’ or ‘stop’ before the boundary is respected,” she explained. “It may take some reminding and redirecting at first, but when it’s consistently practiced, children become more mindful of the boundaries of others and come to expect theirs to be respected as well.”
Parents and caregivers can promote bodily autonomy in everyday circumstances like mealtimes. “When a child says that they are full or finished eating, avoiding a power struggle by not forcing them to take one more bite or finish their plate honors what their body is telling them,” said Carnagey.
Bowers pointed out that there are opportunities to teach these lessons while reading books or watching movies. Parents can say things like, “Should that prince have kissed the princess when she was sleeping? She wasn’t able to say yes or no.”
According to her, there are times that parents should not insist on asking for permission, however, like when changing diapers, taking kids to the doctor to receive medical care and bathing young children before they’re able to do it on their own.
“If we ask a child, ‘May I change your diaper?’ and they respond with ‘no,’ we’re left with two options. Either we violate their consent or we leave them in a dirty diaper, which is a health and safety hazard,” she explained. “Instead, we talk through with them. ‘It’s time to change your diaper. Your body did its job to get that out, and now we’re going to take off the dirty diaper. I’m going to use this wipe. …’ We can still show them that their body is worth respect, that we will be intentional and inform of the process.”
Use Books And Videos
Many children’s books promote themes of bodily autonomy and safety. Bowers and Carnagey recommended Jayneen Sanders’ books, especially No Means No!, Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept and My Body! What I Say Goes! Sanders also has a book geared toward caregivers called Body Safety Education.
Educate2Empower Publishing, Sanders’ publisher, is a great resource for families because it is an imprint specializing in children’s books on body safety, consent, gender equality, respectful relationships and social and emotional intelligence.
Carnagey’s Sex Positive Families website features a reading list of over 100 books on sexual health for children and families, including many that tackle consent and bodily autonomy.
Bowers is a fan of What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg. “It’s a great basic intro into how babies are made, using the terms ‘sperm,’ ‘egg,’ ‘uterus’ and ‘vagina,’” she said. She also recommended C Is for Consent and Miles Is the Boss of His Body.
Beyond books, the Animated Child, an enrichment center in Virginia, offers a video version of My Body! What I Say Goes! and others on consent and safety. Amaze produces useful videos to inform these kinds of conversations as well.
Teach Kids To Trust Their Instincts
There are ways to help kids learn to trust their instincts, which can be a fundamental step in teaching bodily autonomy and contextualizing difficult experiences.
“Being in the habit of checking in and making space to hear from them how they are doing in a moment is a great way to help increase their body awareness and language around their experiences.”
– Melissa Carnagey, sex educator
Carnagey suggested teaching kids to identify their feelings. Parents and caregivers can do this by asking questions like “How are you feeling right now?” or pointing out when they notice shifts in body language with statements like “I see that you’re frowning. Tell me what you’re feeling.”
“Being in the habit of checking in and making space to hear from them how they are doing in a moment is a great way to help increase their body awareness and language around their experiences,” she said. “This can make them more confident communicators and advocates for their wants and needs along their journey.”