When young children explore anatomy: Dilemma or development?
by Karen Petty
“Does my child touch herself at school?”
“What do I do when my child uses bad language?”
WHEN PARENTS ASK QUESTIONS like these, especially about their
sexual behavior and language, they often turn to the preschool teacher
or caregiver as a resource.
Teachers may feel uncomfortable about how to respond. They are at a loss to
provide answers that are developmentally appropriate as well as honest and
well-informed. In addition, teachers may wonder how to deal with issues concerning
gender anatomy—physical differences between boys and girls—that
arise in the classroom.
According to a growing field of research, a young child’s questions and
concerns about the body, as well as body exploration, are not only common,
but necessary for the child’s development and progress toward emotional
well-being and adjustment. This article may provide useful information to teachers
and parents alike when deciding how to address children’s natural curiosities
about their own bodies and those of others.
The role of the teacher
The job of the teacher or caregiver is to help preschoolers develop a clear,
healthy sex identity. You do this by using correct words when talking
about body parts and answering their questions. You also help children
become aware of the differences and similarities between girls and boys
in social interactions that occur naturally in the classroom.
However, it is not the teacher’s job to teach sex education in preschool
or to inform children of sexual matters that go against the beliefs and values
of the child’s family. These issues sometimes generate strong feelings
among parents—and teachers. When dealing with these sensitive issues,
we must be aware of parents’ concerns and values.
Normal childhood sexual development
Children learn about their bodies and their environment starting from their
first days of life through direct touching and skin contact from others.
Babies who lack sufficient skin-to-skin caressing early in life fail
to develop a sense of well-being in later life. Children who experience
tender stroking and gentleness often will be better able as adults to
experience closeness, warmth, and trust with another person.
Sexual awareness begins
with the earliest contact with our own bodies as well as the bodies of
our parents and other people. It has been said that our need to be touched,
caressed, and cuddled is as basic as our need for food.
During the first two years of life, children learn through their senses: touching,
tasting, seeing, smelling, and hearing. During the first months of life, babies
discover their hands, mouth, feet, and eventually their private areas.
Working with parents
In working with parents, we are encouraged to include them when providing
new and maybe controversial or sensitive information to their children.
Talk with parents beforehand about your ideas on sensitive issues. This
dialogue is vital to a sound working relationship between home and school.
This relationship thrives when we acknowledge and respect the background,
culture, and values of every child, parent, and teacher involved in our
school or center.
Parents and teachers don’t always have to agree, but it is essential
that they set common goals and keep the discussion open. By inviting parents
to approach a sensitive subject, teachers show much respect and commitment
to providing the best environment possible for the child. Any decisions or
solutions need to be agreeable to both parent and teacher.
Keeping communication open is the key to a great parent-teacher relationship.
It is easy to talk to parents when you have much in common and agree on everything.
It is much more difficult to keep an open mind and heart when you disagree.
Researchers, teachers, and parents may not agree on what to include in new
curriculum or how to address common issues regarding children’s sexuality.
In particular, they may disagree on the use of anatomically correct words,
children’s books on anatomy, anatomically correct dolls in the classroom,
and how to handle sex play and potty language. Let us take a look at each one
for a better perspective.
Anatomically correct terms
Children around 3 years of age begin to notice whether they are a girl
or a boy—and to comment on differences. For example, Johnny might
say, “Look, I have a wee-wee (penis) and you don’t!” Or
Susie might say, “I don’t have one of those (penis).” It
is possible that preschool or child care may be the first opportunity
that some boys and girls have to observe physical gender differences.
The natural curiosity of 3-year-olds creates an environment in which they are
constantly exploring, noticing, and trying to make sense of their world. It
is only expected that they would begin remarking about the obvious differences
they see in their peers.
What to do: Respond casually and briefly. “That’s right, you
have a penis and she does not.” And you might add, “and she
has a vagina.”
Much of what children learn about their sexual identity can occur in instances
such as this one. Introducing sexual terminology is part of learning about
real life. Learning the correct terms for body parts is crucial to the child’s
well-being and social-emotional development.
Avoid remarks such as “We don’t talk like that at school” or “That’s
nasty; we don’t talk about our bodies!” Children need a comfortable
acceptance of their gender anatomy and a healthy sexual identity. We want them
to understand that all parts of their bodies are OK.
Approach children’s observations and questions in a matter-of-fact manner,
without laughter or embarrassment. That way, children will know that you are
someone they can always use as a resource when they have questions about a
sometimes taboo subject.
Children’s anatomy books
Some parents and teachers believe that providing picture books with anatomically
correct pictures can harm a child’s sexual development and might
create an unhealthy, heightened sense of curiosity. Adults may also be
concerned that the pictures will cause young children to explore their
bodies and those of others.
Experts tell us that children may be more curious at first. However, in the
long run, this curiosity will not last. Children who interact in natural surroundings,
such as going to the bathroom or looking at books with anatomically correct
pictures, will be less curious over time and more comfortable with their own
What to do: Choose books carefully. The books What
Is a Girl? What Is a Boy? and Bodies contain photographs of children’s bodies and use
correct anatomical terms. Before placing them in the library center for
the children to browse, let parents know the purpose of the books and your
intent to use them. If you think that parents may have concerns or even
oppose using the books, allow time to get their feedback. It is in the
best interest of everyone to keep lines of communication open.