The picture above was taken a few weekends ago when my husband and I stayed at a friend's house with two other couples, each of which has a kid roughly Mazzy's age. Charlie (Mazzy's boyfriend) is on the left and Ella (recovering bully) is on the right. Mazzy is the one in the middle who is about three seconds away from slipping backwards and hating baths forever. You'll be happy to know, I put the camera down and saved her right before her head went totally under.
What could be cuter and more innocent, we thought, then sticking all the babies in the tub together? And then, no more than two minutes in, Mazzy (the observant little devil) noticed that Charlie has a little something different going on "down there". First she pointed to it and we all giggled like children and then she reached out to touch it and we all got wide-eyed and looked at eachother like "Are there any grown-ups with answers here?" Thankfully, Mazzy's interest didn't last longer than it took us all to throw our hands up with a collective "Don't ask me!"
Apparently though, we aren't the only new parents searching for correct "Nakedness Curiousity Protocol", as evidenced by the letter below:
Dear Dr. B,
My daughter is a few months shy of two and has recently started looking and pointing at her father's penis. We have never been shy about changing in front of her and now I'm not sure if we should be acting more discreet. We want her to know that it is off-limits but not that it is bad. How do we explain?
At around two-years-old, children begin to develop a sense of individuality and start exploring their bodies and noticing differences between their own bodies and those around them. This includes noticing their private parts and that they may have different body parts from their siblings or a parent of the opposite sex.
Although there is no harm in changing in front of a young child, it is important to consider the risks as well as the benefits. On one hand, being comfortable with nudity can help your child accept and take pride in their own bodies. On the other hand, some experts feel nudity is only beneficial when the child sees the body of a same-sex parent and that nudity of an opposite-sex parent after a certain age may send mixed messages about healthy boundaries and rules about sexual behavior.
If a child is engaging in a behavior that seems inappropriate or concerning, consider what aspect of the behavior is inappropriate and teach your child what she needs to know. For instance, if your child is pointing at your husband’s penis, it may be that she wants to know what it is and why she doesn’t have the same thing. Or if she is attempting to touch his penis, she may need to learn that it is okay to be curious about other people’s bodies but that private parts should be kept private and it is not okay to touch each other’s private parts.
Ignoring children’s curiosity or questions may send the wrong message and make them feel ashamed of their body. Instead, it is important to address children’s curiosity about their bodies and gender-specific body parts by explaining differences between boys and girls in a developmentally appropriate manner and by providing simple answers to questions about body parts and their functions.
For children ages two to four, it is best to be brief by simply stating that there are girl body parts and boy body parts. You may also call them private parts and explain personal boundaries such as private parts stay covered in public and we don’t touch other children’s or adult’s private parts.
At around three to four-years-old (or when your child begins potty training), begin teaching your child the actual anatomical names of body parts which will help them develop a healthy body image as well as provide them with the appropriate vocabulary needed for learning rules and boundaries to prevent embarrassment or harm such as sexual abuse.
Be careful about introducing the actual names of private parts too early or without an explanation because children may use these words in public. When children say anatomically correct names such as penis and vagina in public, there is a high likelihood that they will receive a reaction. If the reaction is overly positive (e.g., laughter) the child may say these words more frequently in public. If the reaction is overly negative, the child might feel embarrassed or ashamed.
Typically, children begin to develop a sense of modesty between 5 to 8-years-old and start to express discomfort or embarrassment about changing in public places or around certain people including family members. When children begin to develop modesty, it is best for parents to respect their privacy and this may be a good time for parents to act more discreet as well.
For children who appear to have difficulty understanding or accepting personal boundaries, you may wish to model healthy boundaries at home by showering or bathing separately and asking your child to turn around or leave the room when you change. You can also provide a verbal explanation about when it is okay to take your clothes off (in private times and places) and when it is not okay.
Always consider the unique characteristics of your child when making decisions about how and when to address their curiosity about their own and others' body parts. Providing age-appropriate information to your child about their bodies will ensure that your child will develop safe and healthy behavior as well as a secure self-image.
Hope this helps,
Dr. B has a PHD in school psychology and specializes in early childhood development. If you have a question for Dr. B, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.