It’s never too early to start building the foundation for sexual health – even when your children are in preschool. Children as young as 3 years old are ready to begin learning about their bodies, their feelings and how to treat others. Learning the correct names for body parts, how to express themselves and how to be considerate of others are key to setting up your little ones for success in the future.
Is it too early?
During this critical period of development, your child is learning to communicate more effectively. They are beginning to speak in more complex sentences and are also learning to talk through situations and feelings. Consistent conversation and interaction with their caregivers help with social-emotional development and build the foundation for healthy relationships and communication. Kids are also learning how to play with and interact with their peers.
When it comes to sexual health, this means the preschool years are a good time to:
- Consider how you learned about your body. What values did you learn? What values do you want to teach your children? Did you learn to be ashamed or embarrassed to talk or learn about sexual health? If so, find ways to work through these feelings by watching videos, reading books or attending parent support groups. Prepare yourself to have open and honest communication about sexual health with your child now and throughout every phase of their life.
- Teach your kids the proper names for their body parts. Bath time is ideal for these conversations. If children ask about their bodies, try not to giggle or act embarrassed. Instead of using nicknames like “pee-pee” or “va-jay-jay,” use “penis” and “vulva.” This teaches children that their bodies are nothing to be ashamed of and that their external reproductive organs are normal and natural parts of their body. It also helps to protect them from predators who may take advantage of your child not knowing about
- Teach your kids that their bodies are private. Only trusted adults should touch their private parts during bath time or for medical reasons. They should not show others their private parts or touch their private parts in public. Let them know that if someone touches their penis or vulva, they should immediately tell their parent or another trusted adult and that it’s never their fault.
Let’s Talk About…
- Model healthy communication and respect for others. Kids at this age are watching you for cues on how to behave and treat others. Play games that teach cooperation, kindness and sharing with them.
- Teach your kids to use their words and express their feelings – even negative emotions. Be there to comfort them and do not shame them for being sad or angry. Provide them with tools to process their emotions such as taking deep breaths, taking time alone or talking to you or another trusted adult about how they are feeling.
- Teach them that name-calling, teasing and bullying are not OK. Help them learn to have empathy for others by making sure they understand how their actions can hurt others. Teach them that everyone deserves love and respect.
- Children at this age are beginning to play and socialize with other children. Help your kids learn how to have good relationships with their peers. This means learning to share toys, asking for consent to hug or hold hands with their friends, not hitting and being kind.
- Teach kids they’re not obligated to hug, kiss or show affection to anyone. If they don’t feel comfortable kissing, hugging, being picked up, held or sitting on someone’s lap, their feelings should be respected and reinforced by you and the trusted adults in their lives. Don’t punish or shame your children for not wanting to give physical affection to others – even family members.
- Teach kids to respect others’ wishes by asking permission to touch, hug, kiss or hold their hand. Use specific language to teach your kids about consent. Say, “don’t touch someone if they ask you not to” or “your friend said they don’t want a hug right now, so you shouldn’t hug them.”
- Children at this age may be curious about their bodies. They will probably have questions about their body parts and the body parts of others. They may see the private parts of other children, like siblings during bath time or diaper changing, and have questions. Be open and honest with them and answer their questions clearly. If you are having trouble, check out the resource list to the right for reading material that can help.
- Children this age may touch their private parts. It is important for parents to understand that this is perfectly normal. Kids are curious about their penises and vulvas the same way they are curious about other parts of their body. Self-touch at this age is not sexual. If you see your child touching themselves, don’t yell at them or make them feel ashamed. This builds the foundation for feeling shame about their bodies and sex in the future. Instead, teach them that it is not OK for them to touch themselves in front of others or in public.
- Kids might be curious about where babies come from, especially if you or someone close to them is pregnant or has a baby. Explain to your child in the simplest way possible how babies are made and born. Again, check out the resource list to the right for reading material that can help.
Resources for Parents of Preschoolers Books:
- Who Has What? All About Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies (Let’s Talk about You and Me) by Robie Harris
- NO Trespassing: This Is My Body! by Pattie Fitzgerald
- When You Were Inside Mommy by Joanna Cole
- When I Feel Angry by Cornelia Spelman
Websites and Videos:
- Sex Positive Families: sexpositivefamilies.com
- Amaze Junior: amaze.org/jr
- Thrive, Inc. Resources for Trusted Adults: thriveokc.org/resources/trusted-adults
Editor’s note: This column is the final in a series of four by the experts at local nonprofit Thrive OKC to empower families and caregivers to talk to their kids, in developmentally-appropriate ways, about sexual health. Each column focuses on a different age range of child and provides ideas of topics to cover, conversation starters and resources. Find the full series of Talking to Kids About Sex articles, plus a podcast with expert advice on how to handle topics like consent, puberty and pornography, at metrofamilymagazine.com/talking-to-kids-about-sex. Find additional resources for parents and caregivers at thriveokc.org.