Kids are curious about bodies — both their own bodies and other people’s. Giving kids the right information can help them understand, appreciate, and respect themselves and others.
What should I keep in mind?
Your kid is going to be really curious about bodies at this age. They’re old enough to start getting to know the names of their body parts and what they do. When your kid starts elementary school, you can help them understand what’s appropriate when it comes to wearing clothes, how to stay clean and healthy, and how to respect people who are different from them. As they inch closer to puberty, you can start talking with them about what changes are ahead so they don’t feel scared or surprised.
Think about your values when it comes to bodies so you can reinforce those values with your kid. What rules do you have in your house about nudity and privacy? What does hygiene mean to you? What kind of body image and self-esteem do you want your child to have? Thinking through your answers to questions like these, and getting on the same page as a co-parent or caregiver, will help you be more prepared. You never know what questions they’ll ask you when, and being clear on your values can help you answer calmly and thoughtfully.
Be ready to start conversations, answer questions, and model good behavior. All kids are curious about bodies, but some kids are shy or don’t know it’s ok to ask about them. That’s why it’s a good idea for you to spark the conversation. The key is to find teachable moments — like the first day of school coming up, a question from your kid about a body part, or unrealistic ideals of cartoon or real life characters in movies or TV.
How do I talk to my child about their body?
Kids notice how adults act around them when it comes to talking about bodies or sexuality. If they get a strong reaction to saying a certain word (when they may not even know what it means) or when adults refuse to answer their questions about sex, it sends a message that those things are bad to talk about, especially with you and other trusted adults. They may then turn to their friends for answers, who won’t be able to answer their questions as well as you can. So make sure to let them know that they can always ask you anything and that they won’t get in trouble, so you can make sure they’re getting the right info.
It’s good for kids to know the right names and functions for all their body parts — including their genitals. If you use the real word (like vulva or vagina) instead of a code word (like “private parts,” or something cutesy like “wee-wee” or “hoo-ha,”), you’ll send the message that there’s nothing wrong, different, or weird about these parts of their body. Not sure what the right names are, or what each body part is for? Brush up on your anatomy.
You don’t have to go it alone: You can give your kid age-appropriate books so they can explore on their own. And let them know they can come to you with questions. Check out these resources.
Be prepared to answer questions about why some people have a vulva and others have a penis, why their mommy or daddy has hair where they don’t, or when their breasts or penis will start to grow.
Puberty doesn’t start until the end of elementary school at the earliest, but it’s a good idea to start talking about the basics of it with your kid early on. That way they’ll be prepared when things start changing, and they won’t feel scared or confused.
Elementary school is also a good age to talk about and be a model for healthy habits and attitudes. Talk with them about why it’s important to eat well, be active, and keep good hygiene (like brushing your teeth and taking baths). It may help to try different strategies, like brushing your teeth alongside them, or asking them to help you cook. But no matter what, be consistent in your expectations and rules about staying healthy and clean so they learn how to take care of their own body.
How do I talk about body privacy with my child?
Different families have different values when it comes to nudity and privacy. Help your kid understand that they need to respect other people, so when guests come over or when they’re in public they need to wear clothes. Let them know they need to respect other people’s house rules if they visit a friend.
When you ask your kid to put on clothes, try not to make their body sound like something to be ashamed of. Instead, be clear about the rules. You can say something like, “Your cousins are coming over, and when people come over we have to have our clothes on.”
Make sure they know that their body is theirs and no one else’s. It’s never OK for someone to pressure them to show their body if they don’t want to. The only people who get to tell them what to do with their body (for health and safety reasons) are you, any other caregivers you name, and a doctor at the doctor’s office when you’re with them. Learn more about talking about boundaries and personal safety.
How do I help build my child’s body image?
In general, elementary school kids have fewer hang-ups about how their body looks than older kids. Still, people of all ages are flooded with images of “ideal” body types from TV, movies, and ads.
They may have questions about why they’re short instead of tall, why they have brown eyes instead of blue eyes, or why their classmate uses a wheelchair. Or instead, you may hear them talk about how they don’t like the way someone else looks, or that they want to change something about themselves.
You can help your kid understand that all bodies are different, and that there’s no such thing as “normal” or “perfect.” This can help to start middle school with a healthy mindset about their body.
Here are some ways you can encourage a healthy body image:
- Don’t compare their looks to anyone else’s — even if you’re trying to compliment them.
- Don’t complain about your own looks in front of them.
- Do compliment how they look.
- ...but don’t let that be the only thing you compliment them on.
- Do focus on health, strength, and abilities instead of attractiveness.
- Do remind them that most of the photos and videos we see of models and celebrities (and even characters in cartoons) are heavily edited and not real or realistic.
- Do encourage them to be proud of their ethnic/racial identity, gender identity, what their body is capable of, etc., and look for opportunities to celebrate their community with them.