During the preschool years, kids gain better skills to let you know what’s going on with their bodies. You can help your little one understand what their body parts are, and that their body is theirs alone. Now’s the time to set them up for a healthy body image down the line and teach them to respect other people.
What should I keep in mind?
Preschool kids are learning to communicate about their body and its needs. They need you to teach them the right words for their body parts, and how to tell you how their body is feeling. Helping them communicate effectively now will help you care for them and will set them up to take care of themselves later in life.
Think about how you want your kid to feel about their body when they’re adults. Little kids often have few boundaries about their bodies. Many love running around naked. As a parent, it’s your job to help them learn what’s appropriate and to do so in a way that does not make them feel ashamed of their bodies.
Consider what words or tone may make your kid feel shame or embarrassment about their body (like saying, “Put a shirt on! That’s disgusting!”) and think about a different way of getting your kid to act appropriately (like saying, “Since we’re eating dinner, it’s time to put a shirt on.”).
It’s normal for preschoolers to touch their own genitals, so don’t worry if they do. Learn more about how to talk with your preschooler about sex and sexuality.
Teach yourself about anatomy. Learn about sexual and reproductive anatomy so you can answer questions about body parts and their functions. Check out age-appropriate books for kids about anatomy and body diversity, and read them with your little one. Some good ones to start with are Who Has What?: All About Girls' Bodies and Boys' Bodies and Who We Are!: All About Being the Same and Being Different by Robie H. Harris.
How do I talk about body parts?
As your little one talks more and more, they’re going to need to know the names of all their body parts — including their genitals. Brush up on your basic anatomy. Bathtime, getting dressed in the morning, or putting on pajamas at night are all good times to go over what their body parts are. Books about anatomy are good tools, too. Who Has What?: All About Girls' Bodies and Boys' Bodies by Robie H. Harris is a good place to start.
If you’re comfortable, use the real names for their body parts (like vulva, vagina, penis, and testicles) instead of nicknames. Using coded language for genitals can send the message that these parts are not to be talked about or are shameful. Your attitude matters, too. If you react very strongly (angry or embarrassed) when talking about genitals, your preschooler will get the message that they shouldn’t come to you with questions or concerns about their body. So try to stay calm and be open to answering their questions.
Be clear about who is allowed to see or touch their genitals. A clear, simple rule about this can be helpful in preventing sexual abuse. For example, you could say, “Only me and dad and a doctor or nurse are allowed to see your vulva when we’re taking care of you. If anyone else wants to see or touch you there, or touches you in a way you don’t like, tell me right away.” Read more about talking about personal safety.
When answering questions, don’t worry about going into every detail. For example, if your little one asks what those spots on their chest are. You can say, “Those are nipples. Everybody has nipples.” You don’t have to explain breastfeeding or why everyone has nipples even though not everyone breastfeeds.
Who has what? A note about gender.
It’s common for preschoolers to have questions about genitals and how bodies look different for boys and girls. (It’s even common for preschoolers to show each other what parts they have when left alone. That’s totally normal, but you may want to have a conversation about healthy boundaries.)
While the most simple answer is that girls have vulvas and boys have penises/testicles, that answer isn’t true for every boy and girl. Boy, girl, man, and woman are words that describe gender identity, and some people with the gender identities “boy” or “man” have vulvas, and some with the gender identity “girl” or “woman” have penises/testicles. Your genitals don’t make you a boy or a girl.
You can say that most girls have vulvas and most boys have penises/testicles. You may want to emphasize that it doesn’t matter too much what parts someone has — that doesn’t tell you much about them. But you can make that decision based on your values and how you plan to talk with your kid about gender as they grow up.
How do I start building my preschooler’s body image?
Now is a good time to set a foundation of healthy, positive feelings about their body. This can help lessen the negative impact of peers, media, and unrealistic expectations that can hurt their body image in the future.
Limit the amount of body negativity your little one hears. Set a good example. Try to avoid complaining about the way your own body looks (especially in front of your kid). Ask other adults and older children who spend time with your preschooler to limit negative body talk as well.
Look for teachable moments. Little kids notice bodies that look different from theirs. These are teachable moments when you can talk with your kid about how all bodies are unique, that everybody is beautiful in their own way, and that there’s no such thing as perfect. It’s also a good opportunity to help your kid understand how to be respectful of people who are different from them, and that it can be impolite to talk to someone about how their body looks.
Embrace diversity. Many people of color seek out dolls or action figures that look like them, or read them books with characters of the same race or ethnicity as them, to set their kid up with an appreciation of their own culture or identity. But it’s a good idea for people of all races and ethnicities — including white people — to expose their kids to stories and faces from a wide range of identities. That way their concepts of “normal” and “beautiful” will be more reflective of the diverse world we live in.