My daughter Sally is only in preschool, but I don’t want her to grow up to be as ignorant about her body or issues of sexuality as I was, and I want to lay a good foundation for information and understanding now. In other words, this is something I have already done a good bit of thinking about. So far, here is what I have come up with:
1. Answer questions honestly and openly
Sally took me aback the other day by finding my vibrator. I had thought it was thoroughly put away, but apparently not. She held it up, a curious but wholly innocent look on her face.
Mommy, what is this?
So many other women would have simply freaked out, taken the vibrator away, and told her she wasn’t supposed to see that, or else told her nothing at all. I didn’t, though. Without registering that anything at all was amiss, I said the following:
That’s mommy’s vibrator. When you are all grown up you can have one too. Here, let me have my vibrator and I’ll put it away.
As Sally handed me the vibrator, I knew that I was setting up lines of trust – and barring the door against shame. If I’d responded differently Sally might have thought my vibrator was something shameful, or she might have become curious about this forbidden object and, knowing she couldn’t ask me, looked elsewhere for answers.
Now I’ll readily admit that Sally didn’t ask what my vibrator was for. But I think I could answer honestly and appropriately even if she did.
For example, several weeks ago we were watching a movie and there was a sex scene. I don’t try to shield Sally from those the way I try to shield her from violent scenes. Sally turned from the movie to me in confusion.
Mommy, what are they doing?
I thought a moment and then replied:
They’re having sex. Sex is something grownups do. When you’re a grownup, you can have sex too, if you want to.
And that was it, I’d given her enough to satisfy her. I didn’t traumatize her, or attach guilt or shame to sex, or shroud it in secrecy. My goal is to always be open and honest, and my hope is that if I do so Sally will grow into a teenager ready to come to me with her questions or troubles.
2. Teach her about her body without shame
I’ve taught Sally essentially all of her body parts. We usually do it during bath time. She knows her hands, her belly, her back, even her nostrils. And of course, she knows her private parts too. I don’t see any reason to teach her about all of her other body parts but skip those parts as though they’re some sort of secret, something we don’t talk about, something to be ashamed of.
When I was a teen, I used to get some sort of infection fairly frequently. Not sure if it was a yeast infection or what, but given that I never paid those parts attention and didn’t even know what all I had down there, I found this horrifying. In retrospect, I think the fact that I didn’t ever properly clean those parts played a role, because once I began to learn my parts and keep them clean – this was in college – the infections stopped. But at the time, I was so ashamed of those parts, so ignorant and almost afraid of them, that I never even learned to keep them clean. I don’t want this for Sally.
When Sally sees her daddy naked (i.e. right after a shower), she comments on his penis. She doesn’t have one, after all. So we talk about how daddy has a penis but Sally and mommy have vaginas, etc. And again, all this is with done without anything to induce shame or guilt or feelings of secrecy. I want Sally to know her body, to understand it, to own it. Which brings me to my next point.
3. Let her know her body is hers
When I teach Sally her body parts in the bath, I tell her that her body is hers, no body else’s. I tell her that she is in charge of who touches her, and how, and no one can force her to let them touch her if she doesn’t want them to. Her body is hers. And I think she gets that. She even repeats it back to me:
My body is mine? Not anybody else’s?
Yes, I tell her, yes, that’s right. And then I sometimes run down a list. Is your body mommy’s? Is your body grandpa’s? Is your body *insert friend from daycare*’s? She answers no, no, no, and eventually I finish with “is your body yours?” “Yes!” she squeals with a smile.
And I back her up on this. If it’s time for me or her daddy to go to work and Sally doesn’t want to give us a hug or a kiss, well, then we don’t get a kiss. It really does suck to send your child off to daycare without a kiss or a hug, but I don’t want Sally to think that kisses or hugs – or any other sort of physical contact – are things she should be able to be forced to give. I want her to learn that she chooses when to say “no” and when to say “yes.”
Hopefully, someday, if a boyfriend pushes her for something she’s not comfortable with, she’ll know how to say “no.” And in the meantime, hopefully she’ll know that she can say “no” to a sexual predator should she ever have a run-in with one.
I hope that I am setting Sally up for a future of open communication, a future without shame and guilt, and a future where she knows that she and only she controls her body. I know Sally’s only in preschool. I know she has a long way to go. But I hope that I am setting up the foundation now for a self education and a self awareness far better than what I had growing up.