It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Talk Sex with Mary

Today, boys and girls, we are going to tackle the prickly question of your child’s sexual health and development.

I am not addressing those parents who talk easily about the topic with their children. This post is not for those who have no trouble labelling all their child’s body bits. This is not for those of you who find it funny when your baby boy discovers the joys of that little item under his diaper, or your baby girl announces to you while in the tub “Hole, momma! Gotsa hole!”

You! You in the back row, who winced when you read that “hole” line – this post is for you. The first and biggest thing that needs to be said to those squeamish parents, in very kind, compassionate, but firm tones, is “Get over yourselves”. For your child’s sake.

This is not about you, this is about your child. Get over your own reaction enough to see this from your child’s perspective. Your child, who is miles and miles and years and years away from sex. (Unless there is something seriously wrong in your family, in which case you should not be reading this, but seeking out family therapy and perhaps legal assistance, now if not sooner.)

Do you want your child to have a healthy, happy attitude to sex and sexuality? Do you want them to be a sexually mature adult? Do you want them to be a teen who knows how to say no with assurance, who knows how to protect themselves should they decide to say yes? Who will always know it is their choice, their right to say no – or yes – who won’t indulge too early in order to prove something, or from a sense of obligation or coercion?

It starts now, mommies and daddies. It starts now, when your children are discovering their bodies.

To your toddler, those bits under the diaper are no more nor less significant and interesting than any other bit on their body. SO: a penis is no more interesting than an ear; a vagina no more fascinating than a bellybutton. Try to imagine being two, when those bits are just bits like any other.

You parents of boys will be less able to avoid this than girls. Boys discover their wee joysticks from the moment they gain control of their hands. Girls take longer – boys have it easy from day one; it’s the injustice of nature – but be assured that your daughter will discover there’s a hole down there, probably in the tub, and probably before she’s two. Sometime around then she’ll probably also discover the joys of her clitoris, even though, unlike her brother, she may never get to see the source of that feeling.

Before you grab their hand and yoink it away, think about this from the perspective of a total innocent. YOU know this is about sexuality; your child knows two things, and two things only: they’ve found an interesting bit; and it feels good.

“IT FEELS GOOD?!? I thought you said this wasn’t about sex!?!?” I can hear you shrieking in horror.

Well, yes, it feels good. Is there something wrong with that? It feels good for a baby to taste something sweet – which is why they guzzle breast milk the way they do. It feels good for a baby to be held and carressed – which is why they sleep in your arms. It feels good to sleep soundly, to have the sun warm your skin, to hear your mommy and daddy’s voice reading to you, to laugh, to drink when you’re thirsty, to eat when you’re hungry, to wake to the smell of coffee – oh wait, that one’s mine! And it also feels good to touch your own skin, and your own under-the-diaper bits. Once again: for a small child, there is no difference in significance amongst all these things that bring pleasure. If it’s okay to enjoy eating, it’s okay to enjoy touching oneself. (And it is!)

Biologically, sex is about procreation; psychologically it’s about love and power and bonding and a host of other things; physically, which is where your tot is right now, it’s about pleasure. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The moral aspects of sex and sexuality come into play when the child is older, when they become consciously aware of their sexuality, when they start to express it in interaction with another sexual being.

Right now, at age two, they’re pre-moral, sexually. Right now, moms and dads, it’s EASY – easy for you. Start now, and you can enter the world of sex and sexuality in wee little baby steps. So, please, be kind to yourselves and start now. Enter the waters a baby step at a time, let it become just one of the many things you talk about with your child. It’s either that or plunge in headfirst into cold and murky waters, when they’re almost a teen and totally mortified by your sudden interest. Interest which, after a life-time of silence from you on the subject, they will only see as embarassing and utterly prurient.

The first step is to relax. Your child is learning, learning, learning all the time. One of the things they’re learning about is their own body. They are not preparing for a life of sexual debauchery; they’ve just discovering another body part, like they discovered their hands around three months old, and their toes at six.

So, when you catch your child exploring their genitalia, understand that they play with it in the same way they pick their noses, or poke around with their bellybutton, or suck their thumb: because it’s there, because they like to. And. That’s. It. Nothing bigger, nothing scarier.

Just as you would tell your child to use a tissue, not their finger when they pick their nose, and wash their hands afterwards, just as you would merely smile when they play with their navel, so you can simply smile when they play with things below the navel, move their hands so you can finish the diaper change, and then wash their hands as you wash your own, after the diaper change. The message you send should not be “Agh! Stop doing that nasty, dirty thing!!” The message you send need only be, “Move your hands so mummy/daddy can finish changing your diaper, please.”

Just as they will learn that there is a time and place to scratch their bum, pluck their eyebrows, floss their teeth and sundry other activities, they will learn there is a time and place to mess about with their private bits. Not while you’re changing their diaper, thanks, but not because it’s shocking or nasty, but simply because you want to get the diaper changed.

When they’re a little older and they want the words for their body parts, give them. How did you tell them the label for “ear”? If you can give your child the name for their ear, their nose, their bellybutton, you can give your child the label for their penis, their vulva, their labia. Practice it with me now: lay-bee-ah. You can do it. When you give them the word for “ankle”, “chin”, or “elbow”, are you tense with anxiety? Of course not. So give them the words for their private parts – give them the proper, medically accurate words – without fuss and flurry. Or, if you can’t help yourself, keep your fuss and flurry to yourself. Repeat after me: “it means nothing to them, it means nothing to them, it’s just like their elbow or knee”.

That conversation that you will want to have with your child as they approach their teens? The one where you give them facts and information that will keep them safe and healthy? That conversation starts now.

Start now, start early. Be calm, be natural, (or fake it, if it isn’t natural to you to be calm about this subject), be matter-of-fact. If you start now, you can take it in baby steps. “That’s your penis” today; discussions of what it’s theoretically for a few years from now; conversations about safe sex for someone considering actually practising it a few years after that.

Do you want a child who can come to you with these concerns? A child who will let you know at least some of what’s going on with them sexually? Who doesn’t fear telling you about the pressure he/she may be feeling to get involved before s/he’s ready? If you want to be there for your child when they enter the sometimes scary waters of adult sexuality – and that day will come! – then you have to be there for them now, letting them know it’s okay, and you’re okay with it.

Do it for your child’s sake.

© 2005, Mary P

December 3, 2005 - Posted by | parenting, sex, socializing


  1. Nice post. Very informative and clear without being too head-bashy.

    I honestly have no idea how I learned about my bits and such; I think it was my siblings who told me. What I do remember is The Talk at age 13, where I was handed a college textbook on human sexuality and my father showed me how to put a condom on a bananna.

    I’m not sure that they were trying to be hip, or just scar me for life. *shudder* Up until that point, I swear, I was fine!

    Comment by BeckaJ | December 3, 2005 | Reply

  2. Hey, you know you really should write a book on parenting. The world (and the children in it) would be the better for it.

    Comment by Mike from far away... | December 3, 2005 | Reply

  3. Mary P, I remember it wasn’t tooo long ago I emailed you and asked for you advice on how to speak to my 12 and 13 yr old about sex, remember?

    You are a very insightful and helpful woman…I spoke with my children and often mention things again in conversations (or jokingly) but it worked and they listened.

    Thanks again for that lil nudge and pat on the shoulder.

    Comment by kimmyk | December 3, 2005 | Reply

  4. To your toddler, those bits under the diaper are no more nor less significant and interesting than any other bit on their body.

    I heard this anecdote on TV the other day. Dad is standing in front of the bathroom mirror, shaving, naked. The door opens and his toddler walks in.

    She points. “What’s that?”

    She points. “What’s that?”
    “A faucet.”

    She points. “What’s that?”
    “My penis.”

    She points. “What’s that?”
    “A razor.”

    The fellow who told the story admitted he was a bit jolted when she pointed at his penis. “In my mind, I was racing ahead to the follow-up questions. What’s it for? Why don’t I have one? Does Mommy have one?”

    Daddy knows that one of these things is not like the others. He knows that a sex organ opens up a far-ranging discussion, whereas a bar of soap is just a bar of soap.

    But the little girl doesn’t see it that way. To her, Daddy’s penis was just another object in her environment, and she wanted to know the word for it. End of inquiry; move on to the next object.

    Comment by Q | December 3, 2005 | Reply

  5. Actually LMB is FAR more interested in her belly-button than anywhere else on her (or others) body:-)

    The very first thing Mstr A ever did with his hands was find his penis and he’s pretty much never let go since! Now he’s 5, and at school I’m trying to work out how to tell him to leave it alone in public, without making him self-conscious of it! I’m sticking with the fact that he stretches his clothes if he sticks his hands in any part of them (he likes to stretch his t-shirt too).

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | December 3, 2005 | Reply

  6. We had the following breakfast table conversation last week:

    Charlie: Daddy’s pee pee is big and mine is little.

    Me: Right.

    Charlie: Why is Daddy’s big and mine is little?

    Me: Because Daddy is big and you are little.

    Charlie: Oh. That’s what Daddy said. Can I have a waffle?

    I was relieved that our answers matched up. And I got the boy a waffle.

    Comment by Susan | December 3, 2005 | Reply

  7. Beckaj: I’ll be The Talk wouldn’t have been so awkward had they been talking about this stuff with you all along. Condom on a banana, huh? Probably a better object lesson than the broom handle the nurse used to show us in my women’s residence in first year university! I’ll have to try it: enquiring minds need to know…

    Mike: Thanks, and welcome and glad you de-lurked!

    I don’t think I’ve said anything tremendously original, but some things need to be said over and over again, it’s true. One day that book WILL get written, I’m sure. 🙂

    kimmyk: Yes, I remember, clearly. I often hesitate to follow up on the advice I’ve been asked for because I don’t want to pry into your life, but I’m always curious about whether it was useful. Glad to know it helped!

    Q: Exactly! It’s so easy for parents to psych themselves out about it, when what the child is asking for is much less than the parent fears. If you answer the question at the child’s level, not yours, it takes a lot of the pressure off! The child’s questions will grow increasingly more sophisticated, and you can answer them as they arise – in stages.

    MrsA: Boys and their toys! I tell ya…

    I told my kids that there are certain things you don’t do in public: pick your nose, and clutch at your genitals being top of the list! Not that there’s anything nasty about your nose (or your penis!), just that there’s a time and a place for everything.

    It didn’t take too long to grasp the concept of public and private behaviours.

    Susan: Heeheehee… Yet another proof that you and Wade are so well suited!

    I once had a conversation with my cousin (now twenty-something, then three) in which he assured me that my baby daughter, when she grew up, would “have a big hairy penis”, just like his dad – and his mom!

    Me: Your mother has a hairy penis? You sure about that?
    J: Yes. Daddy gots a big penis and a little hair; mommy gots big hairs and a little penis.

    From which I deduced that he figured mommy was hiding hers amongst the hair! I just about peed myself laughing.

    (I can’t remember what happened next: presumably I did the responsible thing and told mommy so she could clarify.)

    Comment by Mary P. | December 3, 2005 | Reply

  8. Wonderful post. I may frame it.

    When my older son (now 37) was about 3, I walked into the bedroom and said exactly the wrong thing without thinking it through. “Jimmy, why are you playing with that?” “But mommy, I don’t have anything else to play with”. Sure shut me up.

    The girls and I talk all the time and actually, my boys and I did as well. That may have been the only time I messed up and he doesn’t seem emotionally scarred.

    Comment by granny | December 3, 2005 | Reply

  9. Amen, amen, amen!

    Comment by misfit | December 4, 2005 | Reply

  10. Once again, Mary, you speak the truth! There’s nothing more traumatizing than having your mother slap your hands away from your crotch when you’re trying to get a little extra pleasure during Saturday morning cartoons, and you’re only 2. Not that happened to me, of course (cough, cough).

    Comment by MIM | December 4, 2005 | Reply

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