World Children’s Day promotes improving children’s welfare, and one way to empower children and keep them safe is by providing age-appropriate knowledge. As teaching children correct terms for private body parts and parent-child communications about sexuality are among the proven elements of child sexual abuse prevention, local and national experts praise parents for taking these important steps and provide tips to help parents maintain age-appropriate discussions with their children.
“An increasing number of parents are using correct terms for private body parts, and we are celebrating their commitment to provide necessary information to their children and keep children safe,” said Joyce Prusak, executive director of Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center.
Sally Kimel-Sheppard, child sexual abuse prevention expert, also stressed the importance of teaching children correct terms and commended parents for overcoming stigma. Kimel-Sheppard has an extensive experience working in the fields of child sexual abuse prevention and intervention, serving as therapist and forensic interviewer, conducting nearly 1,000 forensic interviews. She served as executive director of the Cottage Sexual Assault Center and Children’s Advocacy Center, in Athens, Georgia, for 15 years. She teaches subjects related to child sexual abuse prevention at the University of Georgia and the National Criminal Justice Training Center of Fox Valley Technical College. Kimel-Sheppard has two children.
Kimel-Sheppard provided tips for parents about age-appropriate topics to discuss with their children. Parent-child communications about body autonomy, safety and sexuality are essential for preventing child sexual abuse.
Prevention is multi-layered, and one of the most important and easiest prevention tools for parents is to use correct terms for private body parts and have ongoing conversations about sexuality, according to Kimel-Sheppard.
Use correct terms and speak with your child about body autonomy, safety and sexuality matter-of-factly, without emphasis or embarrassment. Read with your child or ask your child to read age-appropriate books about safety, body autonomy, sexuality and diversity. You can also use scenes in movies and TV shows to start conversations.
Birth to 2
Parents should start using correct terms for private body parts – such as penis, scrotum, vulva, vagina, breasts – when talking with their children as soon as they start speaking to them.
When you’re giving your child a bath, you can say, “I’m cleaning your arm. I’m cleaning your penis/scrotum/vulva.” Changing your child’s diaper is also an appropriate time to mention the correct words. When you’re changing your child’s diaper, say, “I’m changing your diaper and I’m cleaning your vulva/scrotum/penis,” advises Kimel-Sheppard.
Ages 2 to 5
Continue using correct terms for private body parts. By now, penis/scrotum/vulva/vagina/breasts are normal words for your child. At that age, you should teach your children to keep their private parts covered and that it is not okay for other people to see or touch their penis/scrotum/vulva/vagina/breasts. Explain that there are exceptions, such as going to the doctor and getting help with cleaning when going to the bathroom.
Children start exploring their bodies, and that’s normal. If your children touch their genitals, redirect their attention and explain they shouldn’t do that at a public place, said Kimel-Sheppard.
Start conversations about consent and boundaries. Let children know it is okay to say no if they don’t want to hug someone, even if that person is a close family member, such as a grandmother. At the same time, explain to your child that if someone, another child for example, doesn’t want to be hugged, your child should respect that.
Talk about these topics without embarrassment. When you’re preparing to take a shower, for example, you could tell your child that you need privacy because people should keep their penis/scrotum/vulva/vagina/breasts private.
Ages 6 to 8
At that age, your children might ask how babies are made, and they need an explanation. It’s also important to talk about touches that are okay and not okay and develop a safety plan.
Your children already know the names of their body parts and use correct words without embarrassment, so it’s not a big deal to talk with them about these age-appropriate topics, according to Kimel-Sheppard.
Talk about touches and explain what is okay and what is not okay.
“You could say, ‘We’ve talked about parts of your body that are private – your penis/vulva/breasts. If someone wants to give you a touch there, that is not okay. It may be okay if you are hurt there, or if you are at the doctor’s office, or if dad needs to give you medicine; but other than that, there’s no good reason for anybody to give you a touch there,’” Kimel-Sheppard said.
Develop a safety plan. You could say to your child, “You need a safety plan if someone gives you a touch on your body that’s not okay – it could be a hit or a smack, or a touch on your penis/vagina. First of all, get away from that person as soon as you can. And tell someone you trust.” Help your child identify a trusted adult, a teacher or a coach, for example, said Kimel-Sheppard.
Your child might ask how babies are made. An appropriate way to explain is by saying, “There are lots of ways to become a parent. One way is when two adults get their bodies together and the sperm from the male combines with the egg from the female to make a child. Adoption is another way.” If your child has additional questions, you might suggest to talk about this topic again, and then, read a book about it together later. It's Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends, by Robie Harris, is a book you can read with your child.
Ages 9 to 12
You already have a foundation. By now, your children know they can discuss sexuality topics with you, and you would be the first person to ask when they have any questions.
“Their body is changing. Their voice is changing. Talk about puberty. Erase the mystery and let your children know what to expect. Normalize growing hair and periods and erection and masturbation,” said Kimel-Sheppard. “I set expectations. I might say, ‘If you are going to touch your penis or vagina, which is totally normal, do it in a private space.’ I don’t want my children to think they are weird. All this is normal. And when my kids get to the age when they are thinking about having sex, I can talk with them.”
It’s also important to have conversations about diversity. The Every Body Book is appropriate for that age group. The book is an “illustrated LGBTQ+ inclusive kid's guide to sex, gender and relationships education that includes children and families of all genders and sexual orientations, covering puberty, hormones, consent, sex, pregnancy and safety,” according to the book’s description.
Continue talking about topics you’ve already discussed in previous years. You have laid a foundation of trust and when your children have questions, they won’t hesitate to ask. Talk about birth control, relationships, love, sex, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pornography addiction. Talk about the dangers of taking, receiving and sending nudes (sexting), said Kimel-Sheppard.
“I feel comfortable talking with my children about that because I laid the foundation when they were kids.”
For more information about research and tips helping parents talk with children about safety, body autonomy and sexuality, visit http://www.coffeecountycac.org/teach-correct-terms-resources.