by Karen PlattMy four-year-old daughter is very curious about other people’s bodies. She is constantly trying to “sneak a peek” at private parts and asks questions of people at the most embarrassing times (like of the checkout guy at Zellers). We use the proper language for body parts and encourage a healthy respect for her body but when she recently burst in on her Grandmother in the bathroom and asked to see her vulva, I thought both Gran and I would faint. Gran thinks we are way too open about sex at too early an age and is not shy about telling us so. Maybe she’s right. What do you think?
Wouldn’t it be interesting if we all were as open as a four-year-old? Maybe some of our most persistent questions would have been answered long ago. Of course, there’s something to be said for social conventions as we age (not bursting in on Granny in the bathroom or inquiring about Zellers guy’s genitals are good ones to learn).
But I love preschoolers. I see them as little Buddhas, completely present in the moment, agenda-free, pragmatic and curious. They simply want to know, they soak up information like the super-absorbent sponge being hawked at the Home Show, and then they move on.
Preschoolers are ripe for information about their bodies—the names of the parts, how they work, the differences between a boy’s parts and a girl’s parts, how the same parts might look different on different people. They’re interested in how babies get into Mommy’s uterus (not stomach, please). It’s good to know that touching yourself —aka, masturbating—feels good and there’s a difference between public and private (for example, nudity, masturbation and nose-picking are private things). They should know that, as they say in the Red Cross’ RespectEd program, “my body is nobody’s body but mine.”
Many preschoolers are intensely curious about bodies, their own and those of others, especially those bits that are covered up. And why not? Hidden things are just more intriguing than those on public display—even for adults. This curiosity provides fertile ground to plant the seeds of healthy sexuality. I applaud your openness with your daughter and at the same time, I understand Granny’s need for privacy. What a perfect teachable moment.
While Gran’s need for privacy should be respected (door lock, anyone?), her idea that a four-year-old is too young for open discussions about sexuality is simply wrong. Many parents delay sexual education, wanting to keep their children innocent. “Why do they need to know this now?” is a question I often hear. “There’s plenty of time, they’re so young, it will just make them more curious.” Often there’s an underlying fear that the more kids know, the more likely they are to want to try it out. But study after study has proven the opposite.
Preschoolers are likely to extend this curiosity into play with each other—it’s not just adults they are interested in. This is the time a parent may be surprised to leave a room, return a few minutes later, and find that the kids he had left constructing LEGO are stripped down and de-constructing each other. Stop. Your reaction may be more important than their behaviour. Assuming the kids are approximately the same age and the behaviour is “consensual” and playful, you have some choices. Ignore it. Distract them. Freak out. Needless to say, I don’t recommend the latter.
Sexuality is a cradle-to-grave phenomenon; the knowledge about it should be no different. Obviously, long dissertations about reproduction, puberty and relationships are not appropriate for a four-year-old. But teaching the basics is not only appropriate, it’s important. It lets your child know you’re open to communication, gives her knowledge to keep herself healthy and safe and provides the foundation for continuing communication throughout her life. It also lets you practice dealing with this potentially uncomfortable subject early on when your child has no agenda about the topic—or you.Karen Platt, MA, is a sexual health educator who works with parents and youth. She is currently completing post-graduate studies in Sexual Health. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org