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At some point we as parents will probably notice our baby or toddler begin to discover their genitals. They may rub, tug, or stroke their private parts as early as six months old. It may feel confusing and unexpected as a parent. But that's only because many adults, especially in the U.S., have been taught by society and culture to sexualize genitals. But the truth is this: your little one’s body awareness is totally normal and healthy behavior. So let’s talk about some do’s and don’ts for dealing with it:

  • DON’T respond with a big reaction. You want to avoid  swatting their hand away, yelling, or anything that suggests this is bad behavior. You might send the message that their genitals are bad, shameful, and something to hide.  Big reactions are also unlikely to stop them from doing it — it’ll just stop them from doing it around you. And eventually make them uncomfortable asking you questions about their bodies.
  • DO talk about privacy. You can gently guide them away from touching their genitals in public. The more they understand about private versus public behavior the better. You can let them know that this is something they can do at home or in their room, but that it’s not something we do in front of other people or out in public.
  • DO talk about boundaries, including what yours are. If you don’t want them touching their genitals in front of anyone — including you — and only feel comfortable with them doing it alone in their room (assuming they’re old enough to be alone in their room), you can say so. Ground the conversation in consent and boundaries — that it’s not OK to do something private in front of someone else if that person has said they’re not OK with it.
  • DO use correct names for body parts when you talk about touching genitals. So this means saying words like penis, scrotum, vulva, and vagina out loud. If that feels awkward or hard, practice!
  • DON’T shame them for being interested in their genitals. It’s natural and developmentally appropriate for kids, even young toddlers, to be interested in touching their genitals, even in a way that might look like masturbation to you. These body parts feel good, and masturbation-like behaviors or motions can be soothing to a little one. You can remind yourself that your kid hasn’t learned to sexualize everything like adults have — to them it’s an innocent thing, so try to meet them where they are in this innocent phase of their life.

With all things toddlers, keep in mind that you’ll probably have to have this conversation many times. So try to be as calm as you can and careful not to bring shame or anger into it. Just like with any other toddler boundary, this can take time and feel emotionally tiring. So take care of yourself too: Take a breath, process what’s coming up for you with your co-parent or a friend, or journal about it. Learn more about how to talk with preschoolers about sex-related topics.

Tags: parents, bodies

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