The importance of teaching kids about their bodies to protect them

July 22 2013 | Guest post by SaraBeth
By: ND StruplerCC BY 2.0
When I was eight I had something happen to me that was akin to the first ten minutes, or the infamous warning sign section of an after school special. An authority figure yelled at me and then pinched me really hard in an inappropriate place because I wasn't finishing up a project fast enough. There were no witnesses and because I had been yelled at and "got in trouble" I was embarrassed and ashamed. I did, however, cry to my classmate and friend A. that day and she, thankfully, told her mom who immediately called my parents who then immediately took action.

I still remember the conversation, in the coat room of a restaurant for my eighth birthday where my parents tried to explain to me that I had done nothing wrong and why I needed to tell them when an adult acted in a way that made me uncomfortable. They also reiterated that while respecting adults is important that, my body belonged to me and that no one should yell at me, bully or ever touch me without my permission.

In retrospect I feel sorry for them, trying to explain difficult concepts in the black and white world of a third grader. I can only imagine what would have happened today where tolerance for bad behaviour, thankfully, is much lower.

Recently I asked my mom about the situation, whether or not she was horrified that I hadn't gone to them. As a parent I have a new level of concern over the terrible behaviour of the person and the way that I was isolated when they pinched me. My mom told me that she was more relieved that I had told a friend and that person had done the right thing and that was what was important. She was also pleased that I had learned something really valuable before things had gone further.

How do we arm our kids to deal with something like this? One of our first steps towards protecting our children is knowledge. We have been teaching our twins the correct and proper names for their body parts. One of our favourite tools for this is Kathy Stinson's The Bare Naked Book. It's a perfect story for one of us to read while we get bath time babies ready for bed and teach them the correct names for everything from hair on their heads to the tips of their toes.

A few weeks ago I came across a great article on Bunch Family about teaching your Toddlers about Sex Education. It boasted China's excellent sex education for young children, including the use of anatomically correct puppets and gives great tips on empowering your kids with education.

I learned something important from my mom about parenting. Sometimes bad things happen, it's the way we deal with these situations that really teaches our children about life.

  1. Thank you for the great post, it's an uncomfortable subject to think about, but as your post highlights, EXTREMELY important to talk with your children about.

    Aside from the suggestions covered in the article, I would also like to add a little about how important the emphasis on "YOUR body/boundaries/personal space" is, and how very often parents don't always respect that themselves.
    My husband recently told me about how, as a child, he would be pushed into hugging and kissing family members on visits, and how much he hated it. I hadn't really thought about until then how much of a terrible example that sets to the child; that it's okay for an adult in a position of authority over you (in this case parents, but in a child's mind it's not a great leap to teachers) has the right to trespass upon your personal space and force you to demonstrate physical affection when you don't really want to. That the child's feelings of discomfort are secondary to not causing offence to the adult.

    It's a dangerous path to lead your own children down, to be sure.

    • As someone who was always expected to submit to the painful squeezing hugs and forceful kisses of a particular uncle, I can absolutely relate to your husband. I think now about how many times I would wiggle and struggle to get away, laughing as if it was just all in good fun. He would tickle me often as well. But I knew something was wrong about it.

      I learned years later that that particular uncle had been molesting his stepdaughter for years. When my mother told me the news, I replied, "I'm not surprised." She was shocked – why did I think that? When I explained that while he'd never touched me anywhere inappropriate, he had been very aggressive with me and forced me to sit on his lap, etc., she got a look on her face (she herself was molested by her stepdad as well) and expressed so much regret and anger that she hadn't noticed anything amiss. She kept telling me over and over again that she wished I had just said something and she would have put a stop to it.

      But that's the real issue – it was a family member, and they were acts of affection, so I thought it was normal and that I had to be polite. It's just so important to teach our kids that regardless of who's touching them, it HAS to be okay with them to continue. And when they ask for someone to let them go, it's not rude, it's within their rights. I'll do my best to teach my daughter the same.

      To this day, I can't stand being hugged too tightly or playfully trapped by my husband. These things linger on.

    • Totally agree with this! Too many times children (and teens, too), are subjected to physical "affection" that may not be to the extreme of molestation/sexual abuse, but can still feel very violating of their autonomous personhood. Being forced to cuddle, hug, be kissed, etc. when they don't want to is a violation of that. Though, I like the comment about kids still needing to have their bodies washed and holding hands when crossing the street (even if they don't want it). Explaining to kids about all types of people…family…other kids…teachers…other grownups, can do things that they feel uncomfortable with. But then I think that our job as parents is to remember to not just SAY the words, but also really live that out…or inquire "I noticed grandma J kissed you and you pulled back, how did you feel about that?" so that they can really know that we are there for them. I remember getting the speech by my parents, but they never intervened when I was in uncomfortable situations…actions/words can give off very different messages.

  2. I LOVE THIS! I'm actually working on a project with a friend right now to hopefully bring more to the toddler sex ed world. It's so important that kids learn from the time they are little that their body is theirs. It's also a good time to start practicing consent and when it's ok and HOW it's ok for people to touch them. This can be really frustrating with toddlers sometimes, but it's still a good habit to get into. "Mom is going to wash your penis now, is that ok?" "No, I want to stay in the bath!" 😉

    So many books out there skip over "private parts" when discussing bodies – I urge all parents, as a sex educator, to teach their kids all about penises and vulvas!

    • I babysat two young girls once whose mother informed me before she left that the older one had a 'muffin', and the younger had a 'miffy'. I was like, are these toys? What? To this day, I can't figure out why they had different names for their vulvas. 😛

  3. We started working on consent and bodily autonomy early with our toddler. I take care of a friend's child during the school year, and the interactions between the two of them have been a good opportunity to start teaching this stuff. Both kids are now quite good at saying, "Please don't touch me. This is *my* body." And they understand, "Please don't hit [Susie]. That's her body." It mostly works with adults, too: "Honey, that's Papa's body. Please don't hit him," or whatever. Watching my child use that phrase in interactions with adults makes me feel good about the start we're giving him. It shocked my dad the first time my kid said, "No, Grandpoppop. That my body. Please no tickle me," but it got the message across and my dad stopped.

  4. Although I understand where everyone is coming from, we shouldn't forget the importance of non-sexual physical contact for children, teenagers and adults too.
    Growing up in a large religious family with little physical affection, I definitely craved it. I loved being bathed, dressed, cuddled and kissed goodnight by my aunt and uncle, when I stayed with them. It made me feel safe and warm and cared for.
    As a teenager, I felt guilty when my sexual drive settled in, as I was raised to "protect" my physical boundaries rather than to open up to pleasure.
    As an adult, one of the best parts of having a partner is the non-sexual physical intimacy. The warmth of co-sleeping, getting your feet rubbed, a reassuring hand on your back…

    As I teach my kids to take ownership of their own bodies, I try not fall into the other extreme and forget about the positive power of touch, so they will never feel ashamed of needing/liking healthy physical contact like I did.

  5. I'm curious to learn more about the early childhood sex education programme in China that's mentioned here. I never thought I'd see the words "China" and "excellent sex education" in the same sentence! When I was in China last year, I was surprised to learn that they have absolutely awful safe sex awareness rates among teens, and teen pregnancy (or generally unwanted pregnancy) rates are soaring. Abortion rates are extremely high partly as a result of this and the one child policy. Linking through the article linked above to its source on Huff Po/AP, it says: "A 2009 study found that while two-thirds of adolescents and young adults in China "had very limited levels of sexual reproductive health knowledge," they were also open to premarital sex." 2/3 of teens and young adults!!! Sounds like that's why they're initiating the doll programme in young children, to try to improve things down the road.

    Thanks for an interesting article!

  6. Just so long as you get the terms right. It is a pet peeve of mine when people talk about how important it is to use proper anatomical names, then proceed to teach their daughters that their vulva is called a vagina.

  7. I was just about to say about the UK's NSPCC campaign! It's brilliant, they are even rolling out radio adverts. I have no kids yet but lots of young people in my life who I care about greatly, and the advert sparks conversations with their parents and them. It make me proud that we're finally using media for something positive!

  8. So, from the line "pinched me really hard in an inappropriate place", did anyone else remember the scene in the original Parent Trap where the daughter is arguing with her father and, to end the argument (WITH HIS 14 YEAR OLD), he rather violently pinches her vulva over her jeans? Apparently, some adults think, or used to think, that this was appropriate. It horrified me.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.