A common misconception is that early sex ed teaches young children about intercourse.
Early sex ed is about learning:
- the proper names for genitals,
- consent and personal boundaries,
- safe touch vs unsafe touch,
- how to report unsafe touch, and
- when and where self-exploration is acceptable.
These topics not only provide children with a strong foundation for healthy future relationships, they also protect children from sexual abuse.
Each of these topics deserves a post of their own, but I’ll summarize each with a small blurb below.
The Proper Names for Genitals
Young children should be taught the proper names for genitals (vulva, penis, scrotum) just like they are taught the names of any other body part. Reasons for this include:
- If a child is the victim of sexual abuse, knowing the correct terms for their genitals will allow them to report what happened to them.
- Accounts from child sexual abusers state that they are less likely to abuse children who are knowledgeable about their body.
- Using the proper names for genitals rather than “privates,” “unmentionables,” or other pet names reduces shame around genitals, leading to healthier self and body image.
Parents and caregivers of young children can introduce the correct names for genitals by:
- Naming the genitals while cleaning a child after a diaper change or during a bath
- Reading children’s books that include the genitals along with other body parts in them
Consent and Personal Boundaries
Consent and personal boundaries are critical for young children to learn and understand. Ideas learned in childhood translate to how a person acts as an adult. Consider a parent who continues to tickle a child after the child told the parent to stop. There are two lessons the child could take away from this. The first: “I have to accept being touched even if I don’t like it.” The second: “It’s ok to touch others even if they don’t like it.” These mindsets could not only open your child up to sexual abuse in childhood, but also to sexual abuse (or to become the abuser) in adulthood.
Children should understand that “no means no” and “stop means stop.” This means that you, as the adult, need to respect when your child says “no” or “stop,” and need to enforce that your child respects when you or others say “no” or “stop.”
Safe Touch vs Unsafe Touch
A lot of people like to use the phrases “good touch” and “bad touch” for this topic. Feather Berkower (@parentingsafechildren and parentingsafechildren.com) has an excellent post about why the phrases “safe touch” and “unsafe touch” should be used instead.
It’s important for a child to understand what is safe touch and what is unsafe touch so they can recognize when someone is being unsafe with them. Some children who are sexually abused do not know they are being abused because they do not know that what the abuser is doing is wrong.
Safe touches can include high fives, hand holding, and hugs as long as the child is comfortable and receptive to these touches. Some safe touches feel bad, like getting a shot at the doctors office or being pulled out of traffic. Safe touch can (though rarely) include genitals like if a doctor needs to check the genitals or if a parent needs to help clean them.
Unsafe touches hurt your body or feelings, such as pinching or hitting. Unsafe touches include if an adult or other child asks to look at or touch a child’s genitals outside of medical necessity or helping to clean them if the child can’t. If a touch hurts or makes a child feel uncomfortable or yucky, it is likely an unsafe touch.
What and How to Report Inappropriate Actions by Otherse
A child needs to know to tell adults if they experience “unsafe touch” and needs to know which adults to report to (parent, teacher, doctor, etc.), and what to say to that adult (who touched them, where and when it happened, and where they were touched). Young children are particularly poor at reporting things that have happened in the past. A simple way to practice reporting is to ask your child how their day was and what they did that day.
When and Where Self-Exploration is Acceptable
Children begin to explore their genitals at just a few months old, often during diaper changes or baths. This self-exploration is in no way sexual and is not an indicator that anything inappropriate has been done to your child. Self-exploration is completely natural, and it’s important for your child to understand when and where it is acceptable.
If you see a child touching their genitals, do not shame or scold them. Instead, help the child understand that there are somethings that should be done in private only.
“No means No” by Simlyn J/Feminism In India