When I picked up my 4-year-old son, Matthew, from day care one day, his teacher took me aside. It seems he'd touched a friend inappropriately during free play. On the drive home, I asked him what had happened. "The teacher said I touched her bottom, but I didn't," he said indignantly. "I tickled her bottom." As I held back laughter, I explained that while he may not have meant any harm, that isn't an appropriate place to tickle a friend.
Although I let the subject drop there, I probably should have kept on talking. Four- and 5-year-olds are awakening to the physical differences between the sexes, and they're eager to make sense of their own body. And experts say they're developmentally ready for an introductory chat about the birds and the bees.
Thought you still had a few years? You don't. This is the perfect age to introduce concepts such as private parts and where babies come from. "You want to send your preschooler the message that sexuality is a natural, healthy part of life," says Tamara Kreinin, who heads the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a nonprofit group based in New York City.
But at this age, the devil is in the details. Wondering how to hit the highlights without saying too much about sex? Read on.
Start a dialogue.
Are you too embarrassed to bring up body basics? Then consider this: Avoiding a conversation now will make it that much harder to have one when your preschooler is older, says Lauri Berkenkamp, coauthor of Talking to Your Kids About Sex: From Toddlers to Preteens. Look for everyday opportunities to bring up the subject, such as pointing out your child's genitalia while she's in the bath or telling her that babies grow inside a mommy's tummy when you pass a pregnant woman.
Keep it simple.
Approach your talk as the first of many you'll have with your preschooler on the subject. Go light on the details. While it's appropriate to use proper terms such as "penis," "vagina," and "breasts," bringing up, say, "intercourse" may confuse or disturb your child. If he glazes over or scampers off to play before you're finished, don't be concerned. Even body basics can be too complicated for kids this age to absorb the first time. Your goal is merely to lay the groundwork for future discussions.
Answer all her questions.
If your 4-year-old daughter catches you off guard by asking, "Why does he have a penis and I don't?" try not to display shock or embarrassment. "Your child needs to feel comfortable coming to you at any time," Kreinin says. Never tell your child she's not old enough to know about a sensitive topic. Instead, respond briefly, then ask, "Is that what you wanted to know?"
Talk about touch.
If your playful preschooler grabs your breasts, gently remove his hands and say, "Honey, we don't touch other people there." Use the opportunity to explain that the area covered by another person's bathing suit -- whether it's Mommy's or a friend's -- is off-limits. Make sure he understands that no one should touch him in these places either, and that if anyone tries to do so, he must tell you right away.
Build body confidence.
Children this age take notes on how they stack up against their peers. My son recently wondered aloud why his uncircumcised penis doesn't look like those of the other boys in his swim class. The proper response for such queries: Let your child know it's okay to be different. "Say, 'Some people have big noses and others have little ones. Some boys have skin on their penis and others don't. That's what makes us all special,' " says Charles Shubin, M.D., director of pediatrics at Mercy FamilyCare, in Baltimore.
Allow exploration -- in private.
Your preschooler is a natural investigator, so don't be surprised if you catch her stroking herself in the tub. "Around now, kids start recognizing that it's pleasurable to touch themselves," Kreinin says.
While there's no reason to make her feel self-conscious, it's important to set limits. When Erica Manfred, of West Hurley, New York, discovered her 4-year-old daughter, Freda, playing with herself in the living room, she simply told her, "Freda, that's a private thing you do in your bedroom, not in front of others."
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the October 2004 issue of Parents magazine.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.