I found my four-year-old son and his four-year-old girl cousin showing each other their privates. What should I do?
Don’t panic. This is very normal.
But first, a note: There are some red flags to be aware of. The American Academy of Pediatrics website, HealthyChildren.org, has an informative article called Sexual Behaviors in Young Children: What’s Normal, What’s Not. If you find anything here that concerns you, do not address your child about it. First, speak to your family doctor or another professional.
If the above scenario does not apply, don’t make your son and his cousin feel bad or embarrassed for engaging in this completely age-appropriate activity, but do remind them of the body privacy rules. If you discover another viewing session, simply say, “Remember, your body and your private parts are private.” Redirect them to another activity. You’re not done yet, though. It sounds like you need a plan going forward.
If you haven’t already taught your child body privacy and autonomy rules, now is the perfect time. You can say, "All the parts of your body that are covered by your bathing suit are private. No one is allowed to touch you there and we don’t show those parts to other people. They are just for you.” This is a conversation to have not just once, but frequently with children of all ages.
We must also remind our children that no one is ever allowed to touch their bodies in a way that hurts them or makes them feel uncomfortable. This includes not forcing hugs or kisses. A child who is taught, “My body belongs to me,” and has a parent who backs them up, is a child who will be able to stand up for themselves should they ever need to.
The reason children ask to see and show their “privates” to each other is that they are curious! They wonder, what do penises and vulvas look like? How does theirs look different from mine? What does the part of my body where the poo comes out look like? It’s our job to help them get the answers to these questions so they don’t have to ask their cousins.
This can be hard for us as parents if we didn’t grow up with open and honest conversations about our bodies and sexuality. Talking to kids about their bodies and sexuality won’t make them more curious. It will, however, make them stop looking elsewhere (like in their cousin’s pants or on the internet) for answers.
Educate yourself about how to talk to kids about sex and bodies. I like BirdsAndBeesAndKids.com, but there are lots of resources out there for parents. It’s okay if you’re awkward or not sure what to say. Your child will appreciate your effort and also learn that parents are safe people to come to when they have questions.
Teach your child the correct names for all body parts. They should know the words for penis and vulva just like they know ear and elbow. This is not only to satisfy their curiosity. Experts agree that knowing the correct anatomical names is a factor that helps prevent sexual abuse.
Get some good age-appropriate books for your child that will help you teach them what they need to know. Books like Who Has What? and It’s Not The Stork! by Robie Harris are good places to start.
The great news is that our children, if we start young enough, are usually not embarrassed like we might be. You can say, “I wonder if you and your cousin were looking at each other’s privates because you have some questions. You can ask me anything you want to, sweetie.” Encourage and answer all questions as honestly as you can, without giving more detail than they are asking for. Remember that curiosity about bodies is perfectly normal and nothing to be upset with your child about. It’s a wonderful learning and teaching opportunity.
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