The Naked Truth

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An interview with Dr. Laura Berman by Abbie Schiller

How do parents explain why private parts are actually private and that it’s not ok to touch other people’s private parts?

This is a talk to have starting at a very early age – and then have the same talk at least every six months because children will hear it differently when they’re three and when they’re three and a half or six and six and a half.  Children learn about their body parts as part of a vocabulary – these are your toes, elbow, labia, nipples, penis – whatever – use the correct terms for them – and then we share the information of which parts are private – meaning that they shouldn’t be touched by other people.  Again, it is an on-going conversation.

Why is it bad to use nicknames for our private parts?

It isn’t “bad” per se, it just isn’t that healthy.  You want to normalize private parts and to diminish shame.  So many of the adults I see in my practice are coping with issues that stem from what they were taught about their bodies when they were young and the negative messages they received—overtly and even subtly.  Many adults still can’t use proper terms for their bodies – grown adults.  It is important to have a comfort level in talking about your body – with the correct words for health reasons too.  There are adult women who can’t describe the problem they’re calling their gynecologists about because they don’t know the terms or due to embarrassment.  You wouldn’t call your elbow a “hoo-ha” so why call your labia something silly?  A healthy appreciation of one’s body starts very early on and using the correct words helps with that.

So no “va-jay-jay”?

I  think that speaks to a level of personal comfort.  No vajayjay.

How do parents explain to their sons why some penises are circumcised, and some aren’t?

It depends on the context of why they’re asking.  Are they asking because they are circumcised themselves or because they aren’t? Just noticing differences?  You can talk about the religious reasons for circumcision if that applies to you, or you can focus on the  health reasons.  In the US the majority of boys are circumcised and if they want to know exactly what that means you can talk about when a baby first comes out, the doctor (or a mohil) removes a piece of skin on the tip of the penis which makes it look a little different.  If you feel they are old enough, you can even show them a diagram of a circumcised versus uncircumcised penis.

What’s appropriate nakedness for parents around kids this age?

Whatever feels comfortable.  Every family has a different level of comfort so find out what works best for you and your children, whether that means staying covered up all the time or having a more causal, laidback environment. At some point most children start to show signs it’s time for you to cover up.  They become a little uncomfortable or over-stimulated by your nudity (not in a sexual but emotional way). They may start to giggling a lot, trying or asking to touch your breasts or genitals or just seeming over-excited.  At that point you can just start making it a point to put on a robe or cover up a little bit in front of them.

Is it okay for girls or boys to be showy about their nakedness?   “Private parts parties”?

I think it is normal to be curious and want to explore, but you have to be careful about what is really going on at these “parties” – is it looking?  Is it touching?  It is great that your child talks to you about this and that is probably a part of a long established understanding about these kinds of conversations – and it is important in asking for more information that you don’t make her feel like she in in trouble – but you want to try to find out what’s happening – how often, etc.  She needs to understand that it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it  isn’t OK to touch other people’s private parts or allow them to touch yours.

Dr. Laura Berman is a sex educator and therapist for 20 years, contributor to “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” host of “The Dr. Laura Berman Show” on Oprah Radio, best-selling author, and mother of three.

Posted in: Expert Advice, Tough Topics

Comments (4)

  1. Joel

    Ah, the pseudo-health reasons that no national medical organization in the world recommends circumcision over.

    …I was hoping for a more informed and far less pointed response from Dr. Berman on the topic.

  2. EZaroff

    I should think that not only being told not to touch other’s private parts or let them touch yours, it should also be discussed that being asked to look at someone’s private parts or being asked to show them yours is also off limits. The exception of course is the child’s physician or emergency room hospital personel.

    Also of course it should be communicated to any child that they are to tell their parents or a trusted teacher if either of the above should be conveyed to the child. Being told something is a “secret” and cannot be disclosed having to do with their body or someone elses means for sure they are to tell no matter what the person says he will do if they tell. Reassure children that you will keep them and the family safe and no one can hurt them if they tell.

    It should also be made clear to children that they are allowed to touch themselves and explore their own bodies and what feels good since they all do anyways and children shouldn’t feel ashamed of doing that.

    • Smith

      I think going into that great of detail with a child about a hypothetical situation is more likely to be harmful than it is to be of value. Most children don’t actually experience sexual abuse and explaining to them in detail a situation in which someone asks to touch or see their private parts and then asks them to keep it a secret can make them feel uncomfortable for the same reasons an actual incident of that kind would. I think it’s best just to keep it simple “No one is allowed to touch you there except for mom and dad and the doctor. If anyone ever does, tell mom or dad right away no matter what anyone else says to do.”

      This is just a matter of opinion, but I think the seeing of other people’s genitals, whether your child is the one who does the seeing or whether he is the one who sees, is harmless in itself provided it is in a natural context (if someone sees your kid getting changed at the pool, or if he sees someone else getting changed, it is okay but someone asking your kid to reveal his genitals is not). There is the possibility that looking could lead to touching, but I think we should concentrate only on preventing the touching; as long as kids know that there is a distinct boundary between what is and isn’t appropriate they will be fine, so no need to make them ashamed of their bodies.

      • Brooke

        The idea that ‘most children don’t actually experience sexual abuse’ is a little off.. maybe ‘most’ children won’t be violently raped, but there are many abusers that don’t actually cause physical pain – looking, fondling, tickling, caressing a child’s private areas are things that are super easy to get away with because sometimes children actually enjoy it and don’t realize the pervertion that it stems from. It’s also important to remember that most abusers are familiar and trusted adults/older children/family members that inch their way into behaviors like this. The rarity is that its ‘random guy’ that grabs your child and does everything at once and is done. Its important to be aware that your child won’t always be ‘hurt’ by an abuser, and so without knowing it’s something to be watchful for a child won’t know to tell you about it.

        Feeling ashamed of their bodies is not the same thing as feeling protective of their bodies… Telling a child that they should never let anyone mess with their eyeball (blow in it, shine lights in it, throw dirt in it, touch it, hold their lids open, etc.) because its sensative and can be damaged easily doesn’t make them ashamed of their eyes, it makes them protective of them.