Talking With Your Toddler About His Body

Young boy talking with his mom

What do you do when your toddler goes public with their private parts? Giggle and your child might start streaking through the supermarket in an attempt to get more laughs, and then the joke will never end.

One parent shares her concerns over how to handle her son’s curiosity about not only his body, but those of the opposite sex. Learn from Peter L. Stavinoha, Ph.D., about the best tactics for dealing with this delicate dilemma.

Q What is the best way to approach a 3-year-old boy who has discovered his private parts and thinks it is funny to point them out? Also, how do I address his curiosity with the opposite sex’s parts? — Danielle B.

Peter L. Stavinoha, Ph.D.

Peter L. Stavinoha, Ph.D.

A The harm that might stem from ordinary sexual curiosity in toddlers is more likely to arise from adults’ reactions to the curiosity than from the behavior itself.

As parents, we sometimes impose adult motives on a child’s behavior. Thus, a boy exposing his genitals may take on a much more negative meaning for adults than it does for him.

The reaction the child gets — whether it is shock or surprise from adults or laughter from other children — can reinforce the behavior. Thus, simply ignoring it is one of the best strategies because you will take much of the excitement away. Or simply explain this behavior may be done at home in private, but not in front of others.

Keep the Discussion Calm

When the inevitable interest in the opposite sex’s private parts emerges, you should also deal with this normal curiosity calmly and matter-of-factly.

Depending on your modesty level and values, you have many options on talking with your toddler about the opposite sex and satisfy curiosity — from an age-appropriate picture book to offering some explanation when the toddler might accidentally see a family member naked. Also use these opportunities to teach your child about privacy and saying “no” to anybody touching him without permission.

— Peter L. Stavinoha, Ph.D., pediatric neuropsychologist at Children’s Medical Center and professor of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern

Are you interested in having a pediatric health question answered by one of our experts? Leave your question in the following comment box. You may see the answer in an upcoming Children’s Med Dallas Q&A.

We’d also like to hear from you if you have a funny story about your child making their own “biological discover.”  Keep it clean and add your comment below.  Sometimes, you’ve just got to laugh!

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2 Responses to Talking With Your Toddler About His Body

  1. Ashley June 3, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

    My 4-year-old niece was being rocked to sleep one night by my sister. After saying their nightly prayers and talking about the day, my niece poked my sister’s chest and asked “what are those?” My sister replied, “Those are mommy’s breasts. You’ll have breasts too when you’re older like me.” Without missing a beat, my niece said “well I’ll pray that God gives me big ones then!”

    I agree with Dr. Pete that sometimes it is far more uncomfortable for the adult than the child in these circumstances and just treating the conversation as casually as any other prevents drawing too much attention to a topic or behavior you would rather avoid.

  2. Dee June 3, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    Children will do and say the funniest things at this age when discovering their little bodies. My sister was shocked one day to look up and find my 3-year-old niece had dropped her pants and was relieving herself in the backyard. When my sister asked why she didn’t ask to go inside to potty, my niece said, “My dog goes potty outside. Why can’t I?” This brought about a healthy discussion about the difference between animals and people, as well as the appropriateness of undressing outdoors.

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