Teaching sexual safety to 4-year-olds

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 18, 2011 06:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Hi Barbara,

I have a question that I am not even sure how to word discreetly! My son is almost 4. He seems to be at the age where I have to let him go just a teeny bit. He will want to have play dates and such without his mom around and I don't want to discourage his independence. However, I would like to have a talk with him about keeping his private private. No pulling it out of his pants, no letting anyone touch him, no grabbing down there. Mostly, my husband and I really want to get him to understand that it is not okay for anyone to touch him there. Is this an appropriate age to have that conversation? If you think so, what is a good way to communicate this to him without freaking him out?

Sincerely, Too Soon to Have the Talk?

From: Kristen, Worcester, MA

Dear Too soon?

Not. Too. Soon.

If anything, this is prime time. He's cognitively mature enough to absorb what you tell him and he will be as comfortable with the topic as if you were talking to him about his baby finger or his big toe. Unless, of course, you aren't.

That's the trickiest part of this. Kids take their cues from us. If you give him information in a matter-of-fact way, just as you would about the importance of brushing teeth or staying safe by holding hands when you cross the street, he will accept it equally matter-of-factly. But if you show discomfort or embarrassment in talking about his penis, he'll get it, even if he can't figure out what it's all about. So if you think that might happen, practice having this conversation with the mirror. Just to get it under control.

So what do you say? Not much, actually. At 4, as I've said in this space before, identify the private parts of the body by saying that they are what a bathing suit covers: the penis and the vagina. Explain that "private" means that no one can touch the private parts of the body except to help clean them, like when mom or dad washes you in the bath tub, or when a doctor or nurse needs to examine you.

Private also means that his body belongs to him. This doesn't need to get complicated.

When I wrote about this before, there was a lot of reader response. Two of them were particularly wise and I couldn't say it better myself. First, from AKmom:

"You can .... mention that his body is HIS, and he gets to say who touches him and how. If someone pushes or hits, he can tell them to stop. If someone wants to hug him and he doesn't want a hug, it's OK to say, "No hug, please." And if anyone keeps touching him after he asks them to stop, he needs to get help from a grownup he trusts. Again, no need to go into detailed scenarios about 'bad touching' - just stuff he can grasp. The more nuanced stuff can come later."

Second, from Susan, who identified herself as a trained volunteer at a rape crisis center. She quoted from the script that volunteers have when they speak at schools to k-4th graders:

"We talk about "good touches" -- hugs, kisses, shaking hands, high fives; "bad touches" -- punching, kicking, biting (kids tend to have lots of fun coming up with examples of these); and "uncomfortable touches." This is the category we place child sexual abuse in. We don't give specific examples of sexual abuse, but we say that if a person is being touched on the private parts of their body when they don't want to be, they feel uncomfortable. (For another example of uncomfortable touches, I usually talk about tickling -- a little bit of tickling doesn't hurt, but when someone tickles you a lot even when you want them to stop, it becomes uncomfortable.)

"Then we talk about what to do if someone is touching you in a way that you do not like or that makes you feel uncomfortable: "Say NO, get away, and tell someone." (We call this the "safe" thing to do, not the "right" thing to do, because we know there may be children in our audience who have been abused and not been able to or known how to do all those things, and we don't want to tell them they have done anything wrong.)

"When I am giving this program in a classroom, I usually look around the room and find the adults -- the teacher, teacher's assistant, guidance counselor -- and point them out as people who will listen and help if a child tells them a scary or uncomfortable thing has happened. I also have the children give examples of adults in their lives they can tell -- their parents, grandparents, adult relatives, after-school teachers, sports coaches, etc. We talk about how it's important to talk to an adult, that telling your friend, your dog etc. can make you feel better, but an adult can help you.

"Finally, I emphasize that if a child is touched in a way that he or she does not like, it is not the child's fault (dialogue at this point: "Whose fault is it?" "The person who did it!!"). This is crucial because abusers often attempt to convince abused children that they are the guilty ones and that they will get into trouble if they tell. We have to make sure children understand that it is safe to tell if this happens to them."

You may not want to get into anyth

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

3 comments so far...
  1. I'm flattered that Barbara chose to quote my earlier comments!

    I'd add one thing - at around age 4, my son discovered that touching himself felt good. We gently explained to him that his penis should be covered by clothing unless he was either alone in the bathroom or alone in his room with the door closed (or being examined by a medical professional). We didn't make a huge deal out of it, just kept it matter-of-fact. As far as I know, there haven't been any incidents of 'sharing', and he's now 11.

    Posted by akmom April 18, 11 08:52 AM
  1. Good but a quibble...

    It would be nice if people would teach girls the correct term for the external genitalia instead of using the specific term for the internal birth canal to refer to one's entire pubic area. It is technically incorrect and a two year old going around using the V word just shouts "Hi, I have ostentatiously openminded parents!"

    Posted by di April 18, 11 03:15 PM
  1. We have a book "My body belongs to me" It is matter of fact and not graphic. I got it out of the library w/ some others and it was the one I liked best.

    Posted by simpsonsfan April 18, 11 03:18 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. I'm flattered that Barbara chose to quote my earlier comments!

    I'd add one thing - at around age 4, my son discovered that touching himself felt good. We gently explained to him that his penis should be covered by clothing unless he was either alone in the bathroom or alone in his room with the door closed (or being examined by a medical professional). We didn't make a huge deal out of it, just kept it matter-of-fact. As far as I know, there haven't been any incidents of 'sharing', and he's now 11.

    Posted by akmom April 18, 11 08:52 AM
  1. Good but a quibble...

    It would be nice if people would teach girls the correct term for the external genitalia instead of using the specific term for the internal birth canal to refer to one's entire pubic area. It is technically incorrect and a two year old going around using the V word just shouts "Hi, I have ostentatiously openminded parents!"

    Posted by di April 18, 11 03:15 PM
  1. We have a book "My body belongs to me" It is matter of fact and not graphic. I got it out of the library w/ some others and it was the one I liked best.

    Posted by simpsonsfan April 18, 11 03:18 PM
add your comment
Required
Required (will not be published)

This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it.

About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

Submit a question for Barbara's Mailbag


Ask Barbara a question

Barbara answers questions on a wide range of topics, including autism, breastfeeding, bullying, discipline, divorce, kindergarten, potty training, sleep, tantrums, and much, much more.

Send your questions to her at:
meltzbarbara (at) gmail.com.
Please include your name and hometown.

Child in Mind

Moms
All parenting discussions
Discussions

High needs/fussy baby

memes98 writes "My 10.5 month old DS has been fussy ever since he was born, but I am getting very frustrated because I thought he would be much better by now...has anyone else been through this?"

More community voices

Child in Mind

Corner Kicks

Dirty Old Boston

Mortal Matters

On Deck

TEDx Beacon Street

RSS feed


click here to subscribe to
Child Caring

archives