******Guest post By Sarah MacLaughlin, Excerpted and adapted from her Award-winning Amazon bestseller What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children*******
American culture is loaded with hang-ups about bodies—how they look, what we put in them, and their sexual functions. These often warped messages produce untold numbers of mixed-up and unhappy adults whose feelings influence children. What parents and caregivers say to young children about looks and food and sex is vitally important. Just as kids need help with emotional and intellectual growth, they also need guidance in developing a healthy attitude toward their bodies. The process starts with newborns as they learn about anatomy by exploring all their own fascinating parts. As children grow, they gather important messages from the adults in their lives and from the larger world.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
Our social environment is obsessed with looks—we are constantly bombarded with media images of “preferred” facial and body types. Unless kids grow up in total isolation, they soon learn which types to aspire to. They also pay attention to how adults talk about appearance, including their own. Do you say things like, “She’s big as a cow,” “It’s too bad about his nose,” or “I hate my thighs”? Children tend to mimic not only your language but your attitude—comments like these imply that putting down others and one’s self is normal and accepted.
Talking to a child about his appearance can be a minefield. Many youngsters are overly concerned about how they look, so if you do mention a child’s looks, don’t overdo it.
Occasionally commenting on a child’s special features is fine: “You have such beautiful shiny hair” or, “I see those bright blue eyes.” But rather than emphasize appearance, appreciate and acknowledge a child’s special talents and interests as well. Something such as, “You run so fast! What strong legs you have.”
Children and Food
As kids develop their relationships with food, adults are key players—grocery shoppers, cooks, and role models. With the alarming rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes among children, parents and caregivers need to seriously consider their part in these sad health trends. Do we pay lip service to the idea of healthy food but take the family to fast food places several times a week?
Young children who get whatever they want to eat are primed for not only gaining excess weight but other health problems down the road. Parents need to be in charge of what foods are ordered in restaurants and what is offered at home. The adults in a child’s life can do a lot to offset poor eating habits and influences. Besides taking obvious steps like preparing healthy, well balanced meals, we can educate ourselves on nutrition and talk to kids about it. For example, “These beans have lots of protein, which helps your body grow.” “We don’t buy that snack because it has something called trans fat that is bad for our bodies.” Even young children can be interested in how various kinds of food affect the growth of their bodies.
The first principle in talking to children about body parts and their functions—though awkward for some of us—is using anatomically correct language. While many adults use the common terms for elimination, “pee” and “poop,” euphemisms for private parts should be avoided. What kind of feelings does a child have about his genitals if they are kept shrouded in mystery or made to seem dirty?
Boys have not only a penis, but a foreskin (sometimes), testicles, and scrotum. Girls have a vulva, labia, a clitoris, and a vagina. As a teacher, I heard the inevitable discussion during bathroom breaks about who was using the “right” term. I learned to keep a straight face while explaining to young ones that “weenie” and “pecker” are words that people sometimes use instead of penis, the correct term. Along with the proper words, youngsters should learn how to wash and wipe their own private areas as soon as they are able.
Adults can easily sabotage a child’s positive connection to his sexual self with their own discomfort. Try to respond calmly to a child’s very normal sexual curiosity rather than evoke shame by acting shocked.
Doctors Mary Calderone and James Ramey, in Talking With Your Child About Sex, (http://www.amazon.com/Talking-Your-Child-About-Sex/dp/0345313798/) offer some sound insight: “Deliberate adult avoidance of the area between the waist and the knees can hardly go unnoticed by the child, especially when other body parts are freely mentioned. Since the child already knows that this is an important pleasure center of the body, such avoidance can cause confusion and lay the groundwork for later problems.” If you are confused about how to talk with kids about sexuality, reproduction, and self-protection, there are many good books on these topics. Additionally, Darci and Julie here at Core Parenting have some excellent resources here (http://coreparentingpdx.com/2012/raising-sexually-resilient-children/) and here (http://coreparentingpdx.com/2012/its-time-for-the-talk/).
Another advantage for children who are comfortable with their bodies and know the correct terms is they are less likely to be sexually abused. This knowledge empowers them with a sense of ownership over their bodies. Encourage kids to stand up for themselves by saying “No!” in any situation that makes them anxious.
A pushover child is an easy target for exploitation. Since children are more likely to be molested by someone they know, make sure that kids understand that they don’t have to do something just because a grown-up—even a family friend—or an older child says so. Teach a child who feels uncomfortable about a situation to say, “That part of my body is private” or simply, “Don’t touch me.” A guideline children can understand is that the body parts their bathing suits cover are restricted areas, to be touched only by the child and certain other people. Even those people—parents, caregivers, and doctors—should honor a child’s feelings about being touched. Adults with their rules, habits, and issues greatly impact a child’s feelings about his sexuality—and about his looks and food. Pay attention to the messages you send.
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About The Author
Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with children and families for over twenty years. With a background in early childhood education, she has previously been both a preschool teacher and nanny. Sarah is currently a licensed social worker at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Maine, and works as the resource coordinator in therapeutic foster care. She serves on the board of Birth Roots, and writes the “Parenting Toolbox” column for a local parenting newspaper, Parent & Family. Sarah teaches classes and workshops locally, and consults with families everywhere. She considers it her life’s work to to promote happy, well-adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today. She is mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice about What Not to Say. More information about Sarah and her work can be found at her site: http://www.saramaclaughlin.com/ and her blog: http://sarahsbalancingact.blogspot.com.