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Body Talk » Core Parenting - Parenting Resources in Portland, Oregon.
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Jul 122012

******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.


Private Parts

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.


We’d love to know what you think about this topic! Please comment below!


Special Giveaway!

Please comment on this post about talking to your children about the body. Your comment enters you in the eBook Giveaway — to win an ebook copy of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, in the format of your choice: PDF, epub, or Kindle format. Sarah will be giving away one copy at each blog stop and will announce it on the comments of this post tomorrow. Be sure to leave your email so we can contact you in case you’re the winner!


Other stops and opportunities to win during this Blog Tour are listed on Sarah’s blog here: http://sarahsbalancingact.blogspot.com/p/blog-tour.html.


Also, you can enter at Sarah’s site for the Grand Prize Giveaway: a Kindle Touch. Winner will be announced at the end of the tour after July 15th. Go here to enter: http://sarahsbalancingact.blogspot.com/p/blog-tour.html


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.

 Posted by at 10:37 am

  15 Responses to “Body Talk”

  1. This exact conversation came up during morning snack today! I offhandedly said, “Man, these beggar sticks are dangerous!”. immediately someone said, “dangerous?” I realized my literal mistake, and explained.: “I really like these biggie sticks. I want to eat a yon of them! But, I know that is not a healthy choice. ” Soon everyone ws cumming in, and a discussion started about the side effects from eating too much food and how good it feels to listen to your body. Thanks for this excellent resource!

  2. That was supposed to be “veggie sticks” incase anyone was confused.

  3. I was wondering what “beggar sticks” are, and wondering how I could get some! I love when discussions turn to “listening to your body”. I use the phrase, “what is your body telling you?” in moments ranging from potty training to food to emotion regulation to sleep. So great!

  4. I have a little girl who is soon to be 3. As her mother, I have started educating about sexual predators in an indirect way. We purchased the book “Sarah Sue learns to yell and tell” which we think is fabulous. It teaches that there are “bad people” out there that may want to touch you in/on your private parts, which they are not to do because what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine. We actually have her practice yelling out for “help”, which I think is one of her favorite parts about reading this book! We also talk during bath time about how nobody should touch her bottom except mommy and daddy when we need to clean her. With that said, I am not a shy person. I am an RN and have worked in a GYN clinic. I have always believed that early education is important. When my daughter becomes more interested in her body and sex, I will not be embarrassed to teach her. Right now she doesn’t seem to care. Is it vitally important to teach her that she has a vulva, clitoris, vagina, ect. at the age of 3 or even earlier? I strive to be a better parent every day, which is why I like your site! It gives you a great view on parenting. I definitely think people don’t realize young children will listen and learn from your behaviors and words, even when you don’t think they are listening!! They learn by example, an WE are the example!!

    • Thanks for your comments Brianna N. I agree, they do learn from example and that is us! I think there are so many opportunities to teach our children about their bodies in healthy ways. I love your question about about whether it is vitally important to teach them specific parts of their genitals. I think there are so many opportunities to teach kids about their bodies in healthy and respectful ways. I think that these moments always surface on their own, parents don’t have to create opportunities at all! I think if we are responding in the moment to our children, and we are always willing to be open and honest with them about their bodies, then it just becomes a part of our language and family culture. I witnessed the most amazing interaction between a mom and her four year old daughter. The little girl approached the mother and said “my vagina hurts.” The mother said “hmmm… I wonder what is going on? Can you tell me what it feels like?” The girl responded by saying “I fell on the ladder and I think that I hit my vulva, it feels bruised or something.” It was so nice to see a little girl so aware and comfortable with her body, and able to articulate it to her mom at such a young age. I am sure that this family has used this type of language with their children from birth. Very different scenario if the little girl had only one slang word for the region!

    • I agree that you don’t need to create opportunities–they will arise. My son asked me, “What is this Mommy?” one day while pointing to his scrotum. So I told him! I do think anotomical names are so important. No other body parts get made-up pet names.

  5. Nice article! I wonder how to bring up a lot of this vocabulary. Some of it comes up in the shower:”Pull back your foreskin and wash your penis” or “clean between your scrotum and your legs”. But how about testacles? And I can imagine it’s only harder with little girls!

    • Jess: Shower time is a great time for setting a culture of accurate and respectful language about genitalia. Additionally, there are plenty of times that boys (and girls) will explore their own bodies in and out of the bath, see other peoples bodies, get hurt, etc. I think that responding to situations that arise naturally is much easier (and more effective) than bringing it up out of the blue!

  6. Very nice article. I try and parent with these concepts, but don’t always naturally remember them. About a month ago I was putting shoes on my 2 year old son’s feet and they were too small. I joked around that I couldn’t get them on his fat little feet. Now every time I put shoes on his he says, “FAT”. He’s at an age where he picks up on everything and I need to constantly remember that. I’m trying to do my best and think most of the time I’m doing a good job, but this is my first kid and I don’t know anything about the mind of a little one. That’s why I enjoy your blog…to pick up things that can help me to be a better parent.

    • Jennifer, I don’t think any of us naturally remember them! We all need reminders and support. Parenting is a process! I firmly believe that parents are developing and evolving and growing just as much as our kiddos. The most important thing is that you are being thoughtful about it. Way to go! I’m so glad you found the blog and are enjoying it! If you have specific thoughts or questions I would love to hear them!

  7. Congratulations to Jess! She is the winner of the ebook give-away of Sarah’s book “What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children”!

    Thanks for your comments!

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