Rolling over, crawling, walking, baby’s first words. Yep, the early years of parenthood play out as a succession of memorable and heartwarming milestones. However, not every major development is the stuff of scrapbooks and family photo albums. Case in point: That super awkward phase when your child first discovers his or her own nether regions—and proceeds to develop, err, a keen interest in them for some time to come. Fear not, because this type of body exploration in toddlers is totally normal and healthy.
That said, this new behavior can be a bit fraught for parents who find themselves torn between a desire to uphold standards of body positivity and a natural aversion to, well, watching a kid walk around the playground with his hands in his pants. So we spoke to Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett—pediatrician and medical consultant at Mom Loves Best—to find out the best way to cut through the uncomfortable feelings and address your tot’s latest developmental leap in the healthiest way possible. Read on for some sound advice from the expert.
Use Anatomically Correct Vocabulary With Your Child
First and foremost, Dr. Poinsett wants parents to know that “toddlers are naturally curious about their bodies.” It also stands to reason that said curiosity would be directed most towards the parts of the body that are often covered up and out of sight. As such, you needn’t worry if you notice your kid is starting to get to know their goods.
It’s also never too soon to start speaking to your child in a way that encourages body autonomy and a positive self-image down the line. The conversation about birds and bees won’t come for quite some time, of course, but a kid who isn’t embarrassed to say ‘vagina’ is a kid who is more likely to respect her own body (or someone else’s). In case you’re in need of a refresher course, Dr. Poinsett says you should stick to the following terms when discussing your tot’s genitalia: “Penis, testicles, and scrotum [for boys],” and “vulva, clitoris, and vagina (the vagina is actually the internal body part),” for girls.
Seize Opportunities to Communicate About Private Parts
Needless to say, a family dinner at your favorite Italian joint is probably not the proper occasion to have an in-depth conversation about your toddler’s penis and testicles. That said, there is indeed a time and place for everything. Dr. Poinsett suggests that the tub is an ideal place to shoot the breeze about what’s down below because, “during a bath, you can name other body parts in addition to your child’s genitalia.” In other words, in this particular setting, you have an opportunity to treat genitalia as you would any old body part—acknowledging and normalizing private parts with body positive communication, while avoiding a situation in which the conversation turns into a vagina monologue.
There you have it: Bath time is a winner when it comes to opening up healthy lines of communication with even the youngest kids about their bodies. That said, Dr. Poinsett tells us that there are other appropriate moments, too—namely, diaper changes and potty time. Naturally, any pants-down moment might pique your tot’s curiosity in their own private parts. Fortunately, this is also a prime opportunity to slip in some nonchalant, object-naming language on the subject. (You know, something to the tune of, “yep, that’s a penis.”)
Good on you for seizing opportunities to have body positive communication with your toddler. But it’s important to note that the tone of the communication is as important as when it goes down (if not more so). Even if your curious child has limited language at the moment, they are indeed listening closely and picking up on quite a lot from your tone of voice. As such, Dr. Poinsett emphasizes the importance of using “a neutral voice to discuss your child’s exploration of their genitalia.” After all, your child isn’t doing anything wrong or abnormal, so you should avoid communicating your own self-consciousness at all costs. Per Dr. Poinsett: “Body positivity is key. It is important not to shame a child who is discovering their body parts.” Bottom line? Do your best to be self-aware—and if you’re feeling awkward or embarrassed by the situation, wait until those feelings have passed before you speak to your child about the subject.
Body positivity is undeniably important, but there are also social norms to contend with. For example, it’s not typically cool (or sanitary) for a kid to be exploring their genitals in a public setting (shopping cart, family picnic, playground, what have you). Good news: If you’ve mastered the aforementioned tips—using proper vocabulary, communicating at appropriate times, and maintaining a neutral tone—the whole thing will likely be a non-issue. By removing the taboo surrounding private parts, you’ve both successfully turned genitalia into something rather mundane and positioned yourself to set regular limits more effectively. As long as you don’t try to stop your kid from finding out about their own body in the privacy of their home, the expert says you’ll likely meet little resistance when you lay down the cardinal rule: “We touch our private parts in private, not in public.”