Teaching a child how to understand, appreciate and protect their body is not a one-time lesson. It starts at a very young age when we teach simple concepts like identifying parts of the body but gets more complicated as new issues arise in adolescence and puberty.
As is true when covering many life topics, it's important to create open lines of communication when talking with a child about their body. The more direct, honest and clear you can be in your communication, the easier it will be to address potential issues as they come up.
Being able to openly communicate about bodies is important with kids for many reasons.
First, it can help your child develop healthy boundaries around their body and safeguard against potential unwanted touching. (And, in the event they would experience something like this, open communication would make them more likely to tell you about it.)
Open conversations can also help you support your child in developing positive thoughts about their bodies and manage potentially harmful messages coming through on social media, television and other media.
If you don't have experience with this kind of communication, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are some tips and talking points to help you have healthy conversations about bodies with your child.
Explain to your child that they are the ones that control their body and no one should be looking at it or touching it without their permission. Even seemingly harmless acts like hugging and kissing are not things your child should be forced to do if they're not comfortable with them. If your child doesn’t want to hug grandpa goodbye — for whatever reason — that’s okay. Work on other methods for expressing affection like a high five, a fist bump or wave.
It's also important to help kids understand that no one else should see or touch parts of their body that are covered by their swimsuit — but also clarify that there are some exceptions when this would be okay, like a parent or caretaker bathing them or a doctor examining their body. Tell kids it's okay to say no and advocate for their privacy.
When we teach toddlers the parts of the body, we use their common names: nose, ear, foot. However, it's not uncommon for families to use nicknames when teaching about private parts. Giving genitals alternative names can make it seem like they're bad or secret things that shouldn't be talked about.
As soon as kids are able to speak and identify parts of their body, it's important to refer to all parts of their body — including their genitals — with the proper names. Use the same words you'd use when discussing these organs with a doctor: penis, vulva, vagina, breasts and buttocks.
Young children haven't quite grasped the concept of personal boundaries, so it's not uncommon for them to witness parents changing, coming in and out of the shower or using the bathroom. However, as children get older, your family may want to redraw boundaries for each other's privacy.
There is no set age when you should address boundaries with your child, but a good rule of thumb is if any party is feeling uncomfortable with a behavior, it's time to create a boundary. A child may communicate a need for privacy, but they may also be feeling uncomfortable but not directly tell you so. Watch out for certain behaviors that may suggest they are uncomfortable, like averting their eyes when they see you naked, staring excessively at your private parts or covering up when you enter the room.
Setting up house rules and systems can help teach kids the importance of respecting others' privacy and give them the boundaries they need.
Modeling is one of the most effective ways to teach kids, so the more you model habits that you want your child to adopt, the more likely they'll follow suit. If you're talking negatively about your own body (e.g. "I look so fat," “I need to go on a diet” or "I'm way too short"), they may begin looking for ways to criticize their own bodies as well.
Rather than discussing body size, focus on being healthy. Eat well-balanced meals as a family — don’t talk about “good” foods and “bad” foods. Engage in active activities as a family — go for a walk or have a dance party. Model other healthy behaviors like getting good sleep, limiting screen time, hydrating regularly and keeping good personal hygiene. The more you can show kids what a healthy lifestyle looks like, the more likely they are to adopt a healthy lifestyle, too. For more tips on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, check out this blog post a colleague of mine wrote.
In this day in age, you are not the only source of information for your child. Do what you can to monitor or limit exposure to the internet, television and social media. Kids can get different ideas about what society values and the more you can help control that narrative in a positive way, the more you'll be able to help establish healthy ideas around body image and avoid unrealistic expectations of how kids should eat and look.
Having a good idea of what sexual content your child is exposed to can also help you engage in important conversations at the right time. If you don't know what your child is watching, you'll have no idea what they've learned and where they learned it from.
There is no magic time to start having conversations about body safety and body positivity — kids may be ready for these conversations at any age. You know your child better than anyone, so you'll likely know when the right time is to approach these conversations. It’s also important to have these conversations more than once at different stages in your child's development.
If you have questions about specific behaviors your child is exhibiting or aren't sure how to address certain questions, you can always reach out to your pediatrician as a resource.