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So Your Toddler is Noticing Private Parts... Now What?

Photograph by Twenty20

It's not unusual for parents to bathe or shower with their babies, but when your clueless baby becomes a curious toddler with millions of questions, is it time to stop?

As the mom of an inquisitive 19-month-old, this is a serious question I've been pondering—especially after a recent shower when she began pointing out my breasts and vagina and visually compared my anatomy with hers.

Now my husband and I are wondering how to transition our daughter into an understanding of nudity and “those parts” to encourage appropriate behavior without body shaming. We know we need to do something, but what’s the next step?

So we started to do some research and came up with a preliminary game plan. Hopefully, some of our findings will help you navigate this awkward time, too.

RELATED: It’s OK for My Son to See Me Naked

Curiosity is NORMAL!

Around preschool age, kids begin taking more notice of human physical appearance—comparing hair lengths, clothing, eye shape and skin color—so it’s natural for them to compare the genitals on their body to others. You may even catch your toddler comparing with a friend of a different sex. Don't freak out, this is extremely normal behavior (as long as it only happens once in a while) and what we would call a “stage.”

In this same vein, ages 2-3 is typically when children develop their gender identity, and understand that they are either male or female. Obviously, gender identity goes farther than just preferring pink over blue or wanting to wear Mommy’s make-up. Children are driven at this age to understand the difference between male and female, and understanding and comparing their genitalia with that of peers and family members is a completely typical part of the process.

So is Masturbation… Really!

Children live in a body-centric world. They rely on sensations to give them input on how to act and react. Just think about it—you’ve spent their whole lives cuddling, rocking, massaging, bathing, hugging and kissing them to make them feel loved and relaxed.

Soon enough, your little one may very well discover that touching his or her genitals is soothing and just plain feels good. This is perfectly normal! It's also perfectly normal for this behavior to make you, the parent, super uncomfortable. We don't think of our children as sexual beings, especially at such a young age, and we’re hard-wired by biology and society to find it awkward. Just know that your child isn't the only one, and how you react matters.

Conversations about bodies and sexuality, no matter how awkward, are ones that parents need to have with their children.

Don’t Overreact

Your little boy has just finished with his bath. You leave him to dry off in the bathroom while you answer the door. The next thing you know, he leaps out of the bathroom and flaps himself at the UPS delivery man shouting, “Look at my penis!” Mortifying!

Your first reaction may be to holler at him to get some clothes on, and then give him a stern talking to after the embarrassed UPS guy has high-tailed it. However, a neutral response is preferable. Children engage in exhibitionist behavior to get attention, positive or negative. Keep your cool, and simply tell him to return to his room. A simple redirect like, “Okay, who’s hungry for lunch?” can be plenty effective. Later on, you can debrief and calmly explain why your son’s behavior was inappropriate or unexpected.

RELATED: Your Burning Questions About Kids, Sex and Bodies

It’s as Simple as Talking About It

Conversations about bodies and sexuality, no matter how awkward, are ones that parents need to have with their children. It’s not a “one and done” talk, but a dialogue that evolves as the child grows and matures into different stages in his or her life. Parents shouldn't expect schools to be the one contact point with their child about human growth and development.

When discussing genitals, use the correct terminology. Your child will be able to talk more confidently about his or her own body in the future, and report clearly if they are ever touched inappropriately by another adult. Creating a culture of euphemism and silence around genitals promotes the concept that children should be ashamed of their bodies.

While we don’t want to raise chronic streakers, it’s important for your child’s future relationships for them to be comfortable with their genitals and expressing their expectations for intimacy. Consent is a topic every parent should make their child aware of as these conversations develop over time.

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