While you might find the sight of your 1-year-old toddling naked through the kitchen adorable, you might feel differently if you’re having a dinner party and your little streaker is 4. And your reaction – including your tone of voice, the words you use, and your body language – are more important than you might think.
“Those are sending early, early messages to your child about sexuality and about their body,” says Tracy Levine Wallace, MPH, a sexual and reproductive health educator and L.A. mom of two daughters.
Wallace, who has worked with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and LAUSD, says children begin to be aware of nudity around age 2, but don’t have many inhibitions at that age. “Removing clothes and wanting to be naked, right up until age 4, is really common,” she explains.
If you find your child naked at an inappropriate time and place, without making a public announcement, have him or her follow you into another room. Begin by affirming that the body is a wonderful thing, but explain that there is a time when it’s OK to be naked, and a time when people need to have their clothes on. Point out that everyone else in the room has their clothes on, and that you have your clothes on. “Don’t over-talk it,” advises Wallace. “Stay calm and matter-of-fact about it.”
These situations are also a wonderful opportunity to help children learn the proper names for all of their body parts. Parents are always talking to their children about their eyes, nose, ears and other body parts, “but completely skip over genitals as if they don’t have names,” Wallace says. Add a message about privacy and safety by describing these areas as “private parts,” adding that “Those parts are private because they’re just yours.”
This calm, positive chat will send ripples well into your child’s future. It sends a message that you are ready to talk about any topic and give honest answers to their questions, and sets a foundation for positive body image. This way, when issues become a bit more complicated than streaking at a dinner party, you’re already connected. As Wallace says: “Start early and talk often.”
Learn more about Wallace’s health education workshops and consultations, including “Talking With Your Tween About Puberty and Sex” and “Talking With Your Son About Puberty and Sex” coming up in October, at www.canwetalkhealthed.com.