No matter how much discipline we try to exert over our bodies, in some ways they’re just going to do what they’re going to do. We breathe, we have reflexes, when we’re scared our bodies make ready to fight or flee. And anyone who has ever diapered a boy baby has probably seen a tiny erection, a reflexive physical reaction.
It is absurd to think that a baby’s genital feelings are sexual — babies have no concept of sexuality and just naturally respond to anything that feels good. Human bodies are wired to react to many types of stimulation without conscious decision — like getting goose bumps, or blinking. These types of bodily responses, including physical arousal of the genitalia, are called autonomic responses. They are governed by the autonomic nervous system and not conscious choice.
What does this have to do with sexual health and safety?
Many popular sex abuse prevention programs focus on teaching kids about “good touch-bad touch”, but the words of one adult survivor of sexual abuse must be heard: “No one ever tells a child that a wrong touch might actually feel good!” In fact, molesters often count on a child not knowing this critical fact of life, and use a child’s physical response to convince him or her that they were a willing participant. Similarly, a young man who does not know that his arousal came directly from his own brain may choose to ‘blame’ his arousal on someone and attempt to coerce them to relieve it, an all too familiar story heard from sexually aggressive adolescents. Parents of young children have an opportunity to set a foundation for sexual health and safety by helping make sure their child understands how their genitals work.
Transmitting this message to kids can be as easy as doing nothing. Simply, a non-reaction to a baby handling their genitals gives the message that as parents we’ll treat all body parts equally. As babies become toddlers, we can set boundaries around genital play, focusing on privacy, much the same way as we present potty-training; there’s a time and place for everything. We can also begin to introduce the difference between privacy and secrecy; a child can learn that there are things she can do in private, but Mom and Dad need to know about them. Parents of toddlers can prepare to answer questions coming from a child who knows that he can ask his parents anything.
One mom interviewed for The Sex-wise Parent shared her total meltdown when her 3 1/2 year-old son asked, “Mommy, why does my winky get big sometimes?” Another expressed how hard she had to work not to reprimand her four-year-old daughter who loved to rub favorite toys on her genitals in the bath. Both of these parents were off to a good start by not punishing their child for talking about sex or pleasuring themselves, and both have an opportunity to do more.
A question about an erection can be answered with an age-appropriate version of this: “Sometimes our bodies do things all by themselves because of how they feel, like when you laugh if you’re tickled. Penises get bigger when they feel good, whether you told it to nor not.” The pre-school girl may be ready to hear, “I know it feels special when you rub your vagina, but don’t rub too hard; vaginas can get scratched too, like your knee did when you feel off your bike yesterday.”
Speaking like this to your child may feel odd at first; a great way to prepare is to practice with your spouse or a friend. Take turns thinking of the toughest question you fear hearing from a little one, then help each other craft short, clear answers. The more you say the words and phrases with a trusted friend or partner, the easier it will be to speak to your child with pleasant authority instead of discomfort.
Comfort, knowledge and language about the sexual parts of the body are crucial to the foundation of sexual health and safety for our kids. Children with knowledge and language are less appealing to molesters, who seek out kids lacking the tools to speak up. Children who know the fundamental difference between healthy privacy (“I can do it without Mom or Dad watching“) and secrecy (“Mom and Dad can’t know about this“) are less likely to be sworn to the silence that provides cover to people who sexually abuse children. And, if a child is touched inappropriately like thousands are each year, the knowledge that their body’s autonomic reaction doesn’t make them complicit and that there are no secrets from mom and dad will spare them the devastating confusion resulting from experiencing a physical response that they neither wanted nor expected.
Having those frank discussions about genitalia with your children while they’re still young enough to want your answers means they’ll be more likely to listen to you as they negotiate the turbulent teen years. Good luck!
This post was written for the Healthy Kids column at Philly.com, published 9/24/2013