I was scrolling down my Facebook feed recently when I saw a post in a parenting group saying “My two year-old daughter seems to have a “special relationship” with her rocking horse. Is she masturbating?” And I thought to myself “Whoa, two year-olds masturbate? I gotta do an episode on this!” So I looked around to see who is writing about this and I found Saleema Noon, who has a Master degree in sexual health education, and who co-wrote the recent book Talk Sex Today (Affiliate link), which is chock-full of information on how to talk with children of all ages about sex.
There are lots of resources available on Saleema’s website to help with these kinds of conversations, including a ‘what kids need to know and when’ list, a selection of books (for you and for your child), and other helpful tips and links.
Additional Recommended Resource:
Note: Books that Saleema recommends during the podcast are linked directly to Amazon via affiliate links.
Albert, B (2004). With one voice 2004: America’s adults and teens sound off about teen pregnancy. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Retrieved from: https://thenationalcampaign.org/sites/default/files/resource-primary-download/wov_2004.pdf
Brown, L.K., & Brown, M. (2000). What’s the big secret? Talking about sex with girls and boys. New York: Little, Brown.
CBS Miami (2014, May 6). Broward school board approves sex ed overhaul. Retrieved from: http://miami.cbslocal.com/2014/05/06/broward-school-board-to-vote-on-new-sex-ed-policy/
Chicago Department of Public Health (2013, June). Sexual education policy in Illinois and Chicago. Retrieved from: https://www.cityofchicago.org/content/dam/city/depts/cdph/CDPH/HCPolicyBriefJune2013.pdf
Guttmacher Institute (2016, November 1). Sex and HIV Education: State laws and policies. Retrieved from: https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education
Mayle, P. & Robins, A. (2000). Where did I come from? New York, NY: Lyle Stuart.
Noon, S. & Hickling, M. (2016). Talk Sex Today: What kids need to know and how adults can teach them. Kelowna, BC: Wood Lake Publishing
Scarry, R. (2008). This is me. New York, NY: Sterling.
Schalet, A.T. (2011). Beyond abstinence and risk: A new paradigm for adolescent sexual health. Women’s Health Issues 21(3), S5-S7. Full article available at: http://www.whijournal.com/article/S1049-3867%2811%2900008-9/fulltext
Silverberg, C, & Smyth, F. (2013). What makes a baby. New York, NY: Triangle Square.
UNESCO 2009: International technical guidance on sexuality Education: An evidence-informed approach for schools, teachers, and health educators. Retrieved from: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001832/183281e.pdf
Utah Administrative Code (2016, November 1). Rule R277-474. School instruction and human sexuality. Retrieved from: http://www.rules.utah.gov/publicat/code/r277/r277-474.htm#T3
Jen: [00:30] Hello and welcome to Your Parenting Mojo. We have a fabulous guest lined up today and we’re going to talk about sex. No, not sex for you. I assume you probably figured that part out already by now, especially since you’re listening to a podcast for parents, but about your children and sex. So I was scrolling down my Facebook feed recently when I saw a post in a parenting group saying my two year old daughter seems to have a “special relationship,”with her rocking horse is she masturbating? And I thought to myself, Whoa, two year olds masturbate. I got to do an episode on this. So I looked around to see who’s writing about this and I found Saleema Noon, who has a master’s degree in Sexual Health Education and has been teaching the fields of sexual health, assertiveness, internet safety, healthy relationships and body image for a decade now. She co-wrote the recent books talk sex today, what kids need to know and how adults can teach them, which is absolutely chock full of information on how to talk with children of all ages about sex. And the book is so awesome that I knew I had to invite her on the show to help us understand what we should consider discussing with our toddlers and preschoolers about sex and sexuality and why we should do this as well. Welcome Saleema.
Saleema: [01:46] Well, the goal is to keep our kids educated and therefore protected and safe. I tell parents that there are three main reasons why we need start talking to our children early about sexual health and they all have to do with protection and prevention. The first one is that young children are easiest to teach because they haven’t learned yet that sexual health is still a taboo subject in our society. So for example, when we explained to even young children how babies are made or what their body parts are called using scientific language, they’re excited to learn about that stuff. They don’t have any emotional baggage around the topic, just like, older children and teenagers and even some adults have. So they’re really curious. Body scientists, we call them and they’re excited to learn everything they can about the topic. By the time they get to grade four or five, however we call these people that gross-me-out-ers because now they’ve learned they should be totally disgusted by anything to do with sex or sexual health or bodies.
Saleema: [02:48] You know. So the whole idea is for parents to teach their kids early, even before questions start coming up to capitalize on their natural curiosity and matter of fact nature in learning the information. The second reason why we as parents need to start talking about sexual health with our young children as early as possible is that our kids are exposed to so much to do with sexuality at younger and younger ages, even as toddlersi believe it or not. And so we always need to stay one step ahead of the game with accurate information so that our kids know how to interpret what they hear. They can think critically about it and if they hear something that doesn’t make sense to them or as upsetting or disturbing to them even they can come and ask us about it. We as parents want to be our kids’ number one source of sexual health information.
Saleema: [03:40] And the third reason why we need to start talking from an early age, I think is most important, and that is that studies from all over the world consistently show us that children who are educated about healthy bodies and healthy sexuality are protected from child sexual abuse. Children need information to keep themselves out of exploitative situations. And so when parents ask me, you know, when do I start teaching? Well, I have jokingly tell them the day your child is born by using technical terminology, you know, um, they can learn words like vagina and vulva just as easily as they learn any other word, you know, they’re like little sponges. And we have to be accurate too. For example, when a young child is in the bath, we’re not washing the vagina, the vagina does not need to be washed. It’s an opening. But what needs to be washed is the vulva.
Saleema: [04:31] And even seemingly small distinctions like this are important because if a child is abused and needs to report to a parent or in a court setting, God forbid, they need to have appropriate vocabulary so they can be very clear in exactly what they’re trying to express. Lots of research has been done talking to child predators and what they tell us is that they spend a lot of time grooming their victims, most have been abused themselves so they know exactly what to look for and what they say time and time again is that a child who is educated and knowledgeable and aware about sexual health at any age has probably been taught by a parent or another reliable adult and has also been taught to report should something exploitative happen. On the other hand, a child who doesn’t know anything, doesn’t have the vocabulary, doesn’t have that awareness, probably hasn’t been taught either and won’t report or at least will be less likely to report and therefore is an easier target. So teaching our kids even as toddlers using technical terminology and as they reach the preschool years, answering questions as they come up is really key from a safety perspective.
Jen: [05:46] Yeah. Yeah. We’re not going to dig too deep in the safety perspective. But before we move on, I just wanted to mention something, I can’t remember if I heard this in your book or read it somewhere else. I remember reading about a toddler who had been taught to call their genital genitalia a cookie jar and that they had been abused and had been trying to tell the teacher at school, you know, somebody’s touching my cookie jar and the teachers had no idea what was going on. And then the kid kept talking about it and talking about it finally called the parent and then figured out what was going on and this poor child had been trying to communicate this for weeks and couldn’t do it because they didn’t have the language to tell.
Jen: [06:32] Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So, so we’ll sort of keep that in our minds is an important reason why we should do this, but we’re going to dig more into what children learn about sex and sexuality and how we can talk to them about it more in this show. So let’s jump ahead a little bit to school age. What do children learn about sex in school? Because it seems to me as though we’ve sort of reduced this huge, amazing topic of sex and sexuality to: Thou shalt not have sex before marriage because it’s wrong. And if thou does thou had better not get pregnant or get an STI. How does that happen?
Saleema: [07:08] You know, much of what kids learn in school based sexual health education is fear-based and problem-focused, especially in the United States, I have to say. We here in Canada or are a lot more progressive and a lot more positive in how we address it. However, we still have a long way to go. I can’t speak to what the curriculum is in each area of California, for example, because it really does. I’m guessing it’s much like here in Canada where what our kids learn, even in elementary school about sexual health varies from school to school and even class to class, depending on who the teacher is. What I can tell you is that here in Canada, we do have a mandated curriculum for kids kindergarten to grade 10 in all schools, but what actually happens in the classroom is hit and miss because our teachers are not given adequate support.
Saleema: [08:02] They’re not given good resources. They may not have time and they may simply not feel comfortable teaching it and there’s no monitoring of it, and so it really is it we can’t be sure of what our kids are learning. Here in Canada, the bulk of the curriculum and the primary years, so kindergarten to grade three centers around abuse prevention, private parts on the body, really teaching consent. The idea that all kids are the boss of their bodies. They say who goes on them and who does not. And of course this is an important message of course when it comes to safety, but what our curriculum does not cover and what needs to be covered is basic reproduction and anatomy information. I can’t tell you how many times when I’m teaching grade one for example. So these are six year olds. How many times kids ask me what the word “sexy” means because they hear about it on commercials, they hear about it in music, they see it on…right now we have a bus ad campaign for extra gum and it says bad breath isn’t sexy. So I’ve got kids every week asking me about that and what it means.
Saleema: [09:13] Well, it really depends on the context in which they’re asking me. So I’m, a lot of kids are seeing, hey, sexy lady and songs for example, and they really have no idea what the word means. Just last week, a grade one girl came up to me and said, hey, I know what the word sexy means. And I said, Oh yeah, what does it mean? She said, it means cool. And then another girl interrupted and she said, no, it doesn’t mean cool. It means that you’re healthy and you make good choices about what you put in your body. So between what parents are telling them and what they’re interpreting for themselves, uh, there’s all kinds of miscommunication and confusion.
Saleema: [09:51] What we want kids to know, for example, about the word sexy, is that because sex is only for grownups, it wouldn’t be appropriate for kids to use this word or even to sing it in a song. So when it comes up and your favorite song, maybe instead of seeing, hey, sexy lady, you could sing, hey, funny lady or hey, happy lady or you know, hey independent lady… I usually lose them when I, when I suggest that. But you know, the idea is just to sub out the word. And so they can still enjoy and sing their songs. But because sex is for grownups only, it wouldn’t be appropriate. In a literal sense, I explained to kids that to say that someone is sexy means that you want to have sex with them. And again, because sex is only for grownups, not appropriate. It’s not a bad word, it’s just not a word that kids should use.
Saleema: [10:35] The word sexy is one example of how much our kids are exposed to mostly through media at an early age. I’m also reminded of a time recently where I was in a kindergarten class and as we’re talking about the baby growing inside of the uterus, one of the girls blurts out, Oh yeah. And you know what else, Saleema? Sometimes grownups have sex when they’re drunk. So who knows where she got that from. My guess is that she overheard some adults talking or maybe she saw something on a movie, who knows, right? But this is proof that our kids are exposed to so much more than we think at such younger ages than we think. And so we have to be willing as parents to have those open conversations with them and help them make sense of what’s around them.
Jen: [11:21] Yeah. Because especially in the U.S., they’re not getting that in school. Knowing that you’re Canadian. I did a bit of background research on what is the state of sex education in the U.S. And I’m English and so it didn’t have any sex education here. And I found that 37 US states require that information on abstinence be provided at 26 percent, sorry, 26 states require that abstinence be stressed and in Utah absence has to be the dominant message given to students, educators and Utah aren’t even allowed to discuss, and I’m going to quote this, “the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation or erotic behavior, the advocacy of homosexuality, the advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods or devices or the advocacy of sexual activity outside marriage.” So that’s sort of the worst of that.
Jen: [12:10] Yeah. Yeah. But there are places that are getting better. You know, Chicago and Broward County have now some form of sex education in all grades starting in kindergarten. But yeah, that’s, that’s not the norm by any stretch.
Saleema: [12:21] It makes me so sad because even within those curriculums, we’re still sending the message to kids that sex is a bad thing. We’re focusing on the negative or focusing on the problems, the what ifs. Don’t do this because you could get this, this could happen to you. You know, it’s just ridiculous. And this negative focus on sexuality is harming our kids. It really is. The research for so many years now shows us so overwhelmingly that teaching kids to just say no, you know, that abstinence only or even abstinence focused education doesn’t work. But what we can do is say, yeah, you know, in most circumstances between two consenting adults in a healthy relationship, sex is a great thing. Sex is a way that people reproduce, but it’s also a way that people show love and affection for one another. And guess what? It feels good.
Saleema: [13:16] Mother Nature makes it feel good because if it felt horrible then no one will do it and most of us wouldn’t be there, be here, rather. So sex in most circumstances is a great thing. Now it comes with some very adult, sometimes serious responsibilities, which is why we want you to gather all of the information you need before you make decisions about sex, but when you make decisions that are based on good information and based on your own personal values and beliefs, that’s when sex can be a really positive part of your life. And that’s what we want for you.
Saleema: [13:57] Yeah, it does. Especially in a Scandinavian countries. I mean, for years and years and years, they have been providing students with comprehensive sexual health education and the results of that; the benefits of that are seen in their statistics. I mean, they, they’re teenage pregnancy rate is much lower than ours here in North America. Their STI rates, especially among young adults, are much lower than ours. I mean, it just goes on and on. And most importantly, kids, there grow up with just an openness in such a healthy attitude towards sex and sexuality. It’s not a big deal.
Jen: [14:33] Yeah. So, okay, so let’s, let’s go back to the kind of core age group that we’re talking about here, which is the toddlers and preschoolers, and I’m, I’m curious about the, the signals that parents send about sexuality even if even if they don’t talk about it very much, you know, I’m thinking of a book that we have Richard Scarry’s book called This is Me and it’s about a pig and it moves through the pig’s day and the clothes that he wears and there’s a two page spread of what the pig looks like naked and it has all the different parts of the body are called out, you know, the elbows and the wrists and between the belly button and the knees, all there is, is underpants. So what do children learn about our lack of willingness to just call that what’s there?
Saleema: [15:14] Well, yeah, unfortunately, even if it’s unintentional, the silence on the part of the parent becomes a very strong message to a child that for whatever reason, we don’t talk about these body parts or my parents don’t want to teach me about this. So again, we need to be open. And the good news is there are some amazing children’s books aimed at toddlers that don’t skip over those private areas. One that comes to mind right away is by the author of the Arthur books. What’s the Big Secret? Is a great book for parents to read with their toddlers and it gives such lighthearted yet scientific information and toddlers love because there’s great pictures and exciting for them to learn about the body in that format, you know? So there are great resources for parents even as young as the toddler age to read and learn that way.
Saleema: [16:16] Oh yeah. A lot of them do it more and more parents are feeling empowered to give their kids the information that they never got from their own parents growing up. And so to grab a body science book and read with your toddler or preschooler will be a great way to start just a few pages before bed every night. Like any other bedtime book, you know, and what parents of young children tell me is that it’s so much easier than they imagined it to be because their kids let them know when they’ve had enough.
Saleema: [16:43] But again, they’re little sponges and they enjoy learning about the body, especially if it’s done in a fun way. Like reading a good book meant for kids their age, you know? So while the idea of it may be daunting, especially for parents who didn’t grow up learning from their own parents, once they get down to it, they realize how easy it is. Especially with young children. And that’s what we want to do. We want to open the doors of communication early so that the topic of sexual health is normalized in our home. And that way when our kids are, you know, age 10, 11, and 12, and who are feeling more discomfort and embarrassment around the topic, it won’t be so bad because they’ve always talked to their parents about it.
Saleema: [17:26] Well, our society is sexually immature and they learn from peers and teenagers and adults around them. Not to mention the media that this is something they should be embarrassed talking about. That and all the information starting to make sense to them. Not only that, but they’re in puberty and so they’re very self-conscious about their own bodies a lot of times and don’t want to talk about it.
Jen: [17:49] So what are some of the common questions and issues that come up with, with really young children? You know, what kind of questions do the children ask and, and how to parents sound. So those questions. Well, I guess first of all, maybe I can start with sharing some questions that parents of toddlers ask me? A lot of questions center around nudity in the home from parents with young children. So for example, when should I stop being naked in front of my kids? When should I get my kids privacy when they’re changing? And the same thing goes for siblings bathing and showering together, or parents bathing or showering with their children. And really the answer to all of those questions is whoever says “no,” rules. There’s no age at which nudity in the home should stop. I mean, what we don’t want is to create a feeling of shame or guilt around the naked body, right?
Saleema: [18:42] But it really depends on everyone’s comfort level. So as long as everyone in that immediate family is feeling perfectly comfortable with nudity then there’s no reason to stop it, we just need to pay attention to our kids’ cues as it’s usually the kids who put an end to it. So if a mom, for example, is getting out of the bath and her son walks by the bathroom door and says, Mom, why do you always have to be naked? You know, that’s a hint that maybe you don’t so much anymore, right? So we need to pay attention to those cues and respect everyone’s boundaries. But as long as everyone is comfortable, there’s no reason for it to end.
Jen: [19:17] Okay. And, and I’m thinking about younger children as well, and maybe maybe the opposite sex parent from the child is less comfortable being naked around that child. But maybe the child doesn’t care or is just curious as to why did their parts look different from my parts. And what, what do you do in that situation?
Saleema: [19:37] Well, again, we want everyone to feel comfortable. So if it is a parent who’s not comfortable, that’s fine. I was talking to a friend of mine recently and he has a two and a half year old and I had bought them a book called Where Did I Come From? to read to his daughter. And so he was telling me that he was reading the book the other night and it started some really good conversation and she’s been asking about why her body looks different than her Dad’s. And that was all great. And he said, actually, we’re in the bath the other night. And then he stopped and said, don’t worry, I was wearing a swimsuit.
Saleema: [20:11] And I said, well, are you uncomfortable bathing with your daughter without a swimsuit? And he said, well, no, I don’t care, but I just didn’t think it was appropriate. And I said, well, do you think she’d be comfortable with you not wearing a, some sit in the back? And he said, yeah, I’m pretty sure. And I said, well, why are you wearing a swimsuit? Because right there we don’t want to send the message, this young girl that is not okay for family members to be around each other naked. So we need to find that balance between healthy boundaries and being proud of one’s body and comfortable with nudity.
Jen: [20:45] Right. Okay. So how did things change as the kids get a bit older? I mean, you mentioned the older child saying, you know, do you always have to be naked? What kinds of things do they start asking around the preschool age that is different from the very young toddlers?
Saleema: [21:00] Yeah, I think, I think when kids are toddlers, they’re still all about noticing the differences. Why does your body look different than mine? Mommy, where’s your penis? Those kinds of things, and that’s just all part of their natural curiosity and learning about their own body and the bodies around them, so we as parents of course, need to be really open and honest about that and show lots of pictures, of course in books meant for children to explain the difference and the uniqueness of every body. Now I will say that we need to be careful when we’re talking even to young children about saying, for example, boys’ bodies look like this, and girls bodies look like that. While that works for the majority of people, it’s never too early for kids to understand that first of all, everyone’s body is unique. So for example, even when I’m working with preschool students and as a parent, I would address this with my toddler as well.
Saleema: [21:56] I show a picture, for example, of the male reproductive system. And immediately I say, this is what we usually know to be a boy’s body. Before we continue, I just want to let you know that not all boys have bodies that look exactly like this. Everyone’s body is unique that way and someone may have a body that looks like this, but they may not feel like a boy or even call themselves a boy and that’s perfectly fine too. So when parents are talking to their children, even as young as toddlers, we just want to recognize to them that yes, usually boys’ bodies look like this and girls’ bodies look like that. But there are exceptions to that rule and that’s absolutely okay.
Jen: [22:34] Yeah. That actually goes to a question from a parent that I received when I knew I was going to be talking with you. I put out a request for questions and got quite a few and when one parent responded to say that she has a four year old daughter and the woman has been trying to come up with these very sensitive messages about most boys having penises and most girls having vulvas and vaginas and. But she, she sees that her daughter thinks in very black and white terms and isn’t sure how she’s processing this, you know, most people have things this way, but some people have things that way, kind of language. What’s your suggestion on that?
Saleema: [23:11] Well, my experience is that kids even in preschool, get it. They don’t even bat an eye. I mean everything in the world has exceptions and so the term most is something they’re perfectly comfortable with. Yeah. So I’ve never in all my years of teaching since I’ve been saying this, which is a few years now, I’ve never had a student question me on it. And if, if, if a child does question a parent while they’re just, it needs a little bit of explanation. There is a great book for young children called what makes a baby by Corey Silverberg. And it describes reproduction in completely gender neutral terms. And kids love this book is perfectly understandable. And basically what they say is some people have sperm and some people have eggs and in order to make a baby you need a sperm and an egg…
Saleema: [24:06] There are different ways that it can come to come together and the sperm and the egg and come from different bodies, but all it matters is the sperm and the egg. And kids get it. They love it. So I think we need to be careful not to underestimate what our kids are capable of understanding.
Jen: [24:22] Okay. So let’s talk about some of those other questions that came from parents. A lot of them could be grouped within common topics. I’m guessing you probably get many similar kinds of questions from other parents. And one mom said that her two year old son has an intact penis, but her husband is circumcised and so neither of them are really familiar with intact penises. And her son’s pediatrician has told them to clean it, but her son apparently looks really scared and just doesn’t want to cooperate whenever they try and do it in the bath. And kind of on the flip side of that, I’ve read about parents who need to wash a girl’s vulva, when the girl has been taught about inappropriate touching. And so when the parents try and wash her, the girl says, you know, it’s my body and I say, you can’t touch that. And so how do you find that balance between making sure the appropriate hygiene is taken care of and really respecting a child’s lack of desire to have their genitals touched by anyone other than themselves.
Saleema: [25:18] So it is a fine balance and absolutely, we need to teach our kids, well, the concept of consent from day one, the idea that they say who was on their body and who does not now with little ones like toddlers and preschoolers especially, we want to give them concrete examples of what is appropriate behavior versus inappropriate behavior. So it’s not the person, this person can touch your body, but this person can’t. It’s if this person is doing this, then it’s appropriate. So we give examples. For example, I might say, you know, I know I’ve just told you that your mouth is a private part, right? But would it be okay for the dentist to look in your mouth? Well, of course, because that’s their job to keep our teeth healthy and clean. And they can’t keep our teeth healthy and clean unless they look at them.
Saleema: [26:05] Or if you went to the doctor because you had a rash on your genitals, would it be reasonable for the doctor to want to have a look? Of course, but if you went to the doctor because he had a sore throat, would they need to pull down your pants? No, that will be inappropriate behavior. So I encourage parents to offer very concrete examples of appropriate and inappropriate behavior that’s relevant to their child. Now, a parent will also included in these examples, say to their child, you know, I’m your parent and it’s my job to keep your body healthy and clean. And what that involves is helping you wash your genitals until you’re able to do it by yourself. With the foreskin is important that boys learn how to pull back the foreskin gently and wash underneath it. And if a boy is really resisting that from a parent, or if, for example, the example you gave the girl as not wanting her parents to wash her vulva, well then it’s up to the parent to teach them how to do it themselves with supervision. So maybe washing the vulva, there’s a wash cloth and the child has their hand on the wash cloth with a parent’s hand over top of it to guide the washing, but at least then the child feels empowered and doesn’t feel like their body is being, you know, um, violated in any way. And some kids are more sensitive to that than others.
Jen: [27:34] So it might be sort of trying different things then. And you know, over time maybe the channel gets more competent in Washington can do it by themselves. I wouldn’t have thought of the one hand over another hand.
Saleema: [27:44] And the same thing goes with toileting; wiping. Of course up to a certain point. Parents need to do the wiping because kids just may not have the motor skills to do a good job. And again, that goes under the role of keeping your body clean. And healthy, that’s my job as your parent, but as a child gets older, especially if they’re voicing a desire to be more independent that way, or a discomfort with a parent, helping them toilet, well then the transition would be your hand goes on the toilet paper. We’re wiping and I’m going to guide your hand with my hand on top of yours.
Jen: [28:17] Um, I want to get back to something you said at the beginning of this, your answer to that question, which was, “who goes on a person’s body” and that seems unusual language. Can you tell us why you use that?
Saleema: [28:29] A lot of parents ask me why I say who goes on another person’s body and that’s just because we’re not just talking about touching. We’re talking about a wide range of activities and it may involve someone putting their body on another person’s body. So I feel that saying the term, go on your body, no one is allowed to go on your body without permission is just more inclusive in terms of the different kinds of exploitive a behavior that someone could experience.
Jen: [29:00] Okay, thanks for that clarification. And so the other major chunk of questions that I got from parents were about inappropriate touching of genitals…and actually to restate that it would be a touching of genitals at inappropriate times.
Saleema: [29:20] Yes. So maybe it’s the dinner table when somebody is over for dinner or just at some other time that our society would generally say is not inappropriate time for touching. And so almost without variation, the parents are telling me they respond with some version of, you’re welcome to explore your body, but that’s something that we do in private and not at the dinner table, which I believe the kind of thing we want to say to not shame the behavior but still make it something that is done in private. But the parents are saying that the children just keep right on doing it. So what’s the next step in that progression?
Saleema: [29:53] I think it’s, I think I completely agree. The message is normal, healthy, but private, you know, it’s a great thing that you’re exploring your body. We understand that. It feels good. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it’s an activity that is so private, even mom and dad can’t see it. So if you want to explore your body, you need to go in your bedroom or in your bathroom where no one else is around, and of course you’re not in trouble, but it just is something that you need to be doing when you’re alone. A lot of kids, especially at the toddler stage, they masturbate without even realizing it because it’s a comforting thing. I can’t tell you how many preschool teachers as well come to me and say, you know, so and so got their hand down their pants during circle time. I don’t know how to get them to stop.
Saleema: [30:33] But we need to be firm with this message and gentle but firm. A lot of parents and teachers tell me that picking a key word is helpful. So for example, even a key phrase, hands on your lap would help a teacher explain to a child masturbating during circle time that they need to refocus. And sometimes it just takes a little jolt of now realizing, Oh yeah, right, right, right. I’m doing this, I forgot it’s not appropriate right now, you know, but if a child is consistently masturbating at inappropriate times and I think a parent would need to eventually decide when they should attach consequences to it. And again, this comes down to safety because we don’t want a child with a babysitter, for example, watching TV with their hands down their pants and then for a babysitter to use this as an invitation for exploitation.
Saleema: [31:31] Oh, that’s how you do it. Do you want to see how I do it? Yeah, it’s sickening. But it can happen, right? So we need to be very gentle but firm with the message that masturbation is normal, healthy but private. And you know, what I found is that toddlers and preschoolers and elementary aged kids go through phases where they’re just more central than other times. And they’ll masturbate a lot and then they won’t do it. And then they’ll masturbate a lot again and then they won’t do it. And then some kids are just more central than others. Some kids don’t feel the urge to masturbate at all and of course that’s fine too, but parents just need to kind of roll with it and keep repeating that gentle but form message.
Saleema: [32:19] Mhmm. But if a parent has can figure out a key word with their child then it and avoids the embarrassment or shame of having to remind a child when they’ve got guests over for dinner. That is not an appropriate time.
Jen: [32:41] Yeah. Okay, great. Thanks for that. So as, as we sort of think about the overarching issues here, when I was doing background reading for this conversation, most of the sources that I looked at had this idea of education and sexuality needing to be developmentally appropriate. And I’m guessing that in a culture where a educational and sexuality is not the norm, that that could be used as a, well, they’re not developmentally ready for it yet – kind of way. But if we’re thinking about it, you know, we really want to make sure that we’re talking about this as early as we can and as early as we should be doing, but not more information than we can or should be doing. You know, how, how do we know if what you’re telling a child is developmentally appropriate?
Saleema: [33:27] Oh, they’ll let you know. They’ll let you know what they’re interested in, what they understand. They’ll walk away when they’ve had enough. I think we underestimate what kids are capable of understanding and also what they’ve already been exposed to. The reality is kids as young as 10 and 11 have been exposed to pornography. Online. It is so accessible. Kids even younger than that are exposed to pornography by accident, while searching terms, you know, for projects they’re doing at school. And what makes me really sad about that is that their first exposure to sexuality can often be so negative and disturbing. We don’t want that for them. We want them to understand, first of all, what a great thing sex can be in a person’s life. And then when they get exposed to maybe some not so positive aspects of sexuality, they won’t be traumatized. So it’s not learning about sexuality and sex that is traumatizing in any way for kids.
Saleema: [34:21] It’s what they see without the information behind it, you know? So we do have to recognize that kids are exposed to more and more at younger and younger ages. They are hypersexualized at younger and younger ages and we need to stay one step ahead of the game so that they can think critically about what they’re exposed to. And we never know when that’s going to be. Right. I mean, I have grade sixes, so 11 year olds asking me, can women have a bunch of orgasms in a row? Well I wonder where they’re getting that from, because five years ago they were asking me what is an orgasm?
Saleema: [35:02] No. Or they’re asking why do women always scream when they have sex? So that’s, you know, pornography of course is one source of information, but music videos on YouTube, shows they are seeing on TV, I mean I think even shows on the family channel are questionable in terms of adult content and storylines and sense of humor. So we need to face the facts that our kids are exposed to more and more than we ever were exposed to mean for us. I think the raciest it got was Love Boat and Fantasy Island on a Saturday night. But now our kids are exposed to so much more at any times of the day on their devices. They’re looking up YouTube clips on the playground at recess and it is impossible for parents to monitor everything they come across. Which is why if we can open the doors of communication about this stuff in toddlerhood and preschool with our kids than maybe our 10 year old will come home after school and over dinner, share with us what so and so with them on the playground that day and those are the conversations we want to have the opportunity to speak about with our kids.
Saleema: [36:11] Now if parents are asked a question and it’s just not a good time or they have no clue what to say, which is totally understandable. There’s nothing wrong with saying, you know what? I’m so glad you asked me about that. Thank you for being brave enough to bring it up. We’re going to talk about it and I’m going to just. I’m going to think about how best to answer your question Let’s talk about it before bed or when our guests leave or when we get out of the grocery store whenever the better time, but questions like that or situations that kids bring up to us over the dinner table are such amazing opportunities to give little snippets of information and it’s not about sitting your child down for two hours at a time and spilling everything you know on a given topic. Often a couple sentences does the trick, but just in the willingness to be honest and, and the effort to answer the question scientifically sends such a positive message to our kids that we want them to come to us. We want to be our kids’ Number one source of sexual health information.
Jen: [37:12] Yeah. And that’s, you know, can you give me a minute to think about it or you know, I’ll answer your question later. Seems like an awesome tool. It’s not like I have to come up with some appropriate response on the spot to answer their question. Right.
Saleema: [37:39] Yes; you have to follow through, because again, if you don’t, well then maybe your child is not going to ask you their next question because they didn’t get an answer anyway. Or if you’ve given them a dishonest answer, you’re not a credible source of information. I remember years ago, a friend of mine called me, her daughter was in grade four at the time and they were driving to school that morning and listening to the radio and seemingly out of the blue, her daughter said, mom, what’s a hoe. My friend understandably did not know what to say, nor did she feel like getting into it at the time. So she just very calmly replied, well, a hoe is a gardening tool when really it was referring to the short form of the word whore.
Saleema: [38:19] Now my guess is that her daughter learned what a whole really is on the playground at recess that day. Because if she was asking you about it, then surely her friends were asking about it and at least one of their parents told the truth, but now my friend’s daughter is faced with the fact that her mom fibbed. And so I worry that she may not come back with her next question. Now, luckily my friend was brave enough to circle back and say, remember when you asked me that question this morning, I was kinda caught off guard. I think I can do a better job for you.
Saleema: [39:00] You can still go back and, and you know what? Your kids will appreciate your honesty. You can even tell your child, you know, I’m a little bit uncomfortable with this because I didn’t learn this body science from my parents when I was growing up. But now I know how important it is for you to learn about it and I want to give you all the information I wish I had when I was your age. So I’m doing the best I can.
Jen: [39:20] Which is always good enough. I’m just curious about, you know, advice that you might have for, for parents just getting started in this and um, you know, I started learning about this several months ago and realized that I needed to be using proper terminology and started saying the word vulva when I was cleaning it in the bath and…
Jen: [39:42] Thank you. And it, it was, I recognized that it was absolutely ridiculous how uncomfortable I felt saying that word. So I kept saying it and now it’s just normal and I’m going to totally embarrass my husband by saying this. But last night I heard him washing my daughter and he said it too.
Jen: [40:05] So are there other things like that that is like, oh my God, I don’t think I can do this; are there other kind of tricks and tips and things that I should keep in mind as I’m moving into this space?
Saleema: [40:16] Yeah. And I think, well, just what you said about practicing using the words is key. The more times you say something, the easier it gets. And even if you got some kids body science books and read them while your kids were out, out loud to yourself, again, you get used to the language, right? I think it’s important for parents not to be too hard on themselves recognizing that this, this was not something we grew up with. And so go easy on yourself. And if you don’t use that word all the time, that’s okay. At least you’re using it sometimes and set reasonable goals, right? We need to have a humor about this, enjoy the mispronunciations and the misuse of words and just have fun with it. There’s no reason why it has to be a heavy, daunting thing. Also use opportunities when they come up naturally, you know, parents always tell me that when they’re driving in the car is a great time to talk because, you know, their 12 year old can’t escape and you can talk in the dark and you don’t even have to look at them. So that would be a good idea to have a snippet of a conversation. Again, it doesn’t have to be two hours, but even 10 minutes, even two minutes is valuable. So I would encourage parents to grab those opportunities whenever they come up. Maybe it’s answering a question while you’re walking the dog together. Maybe it’s sharing a Facebook post that highlights an issue. Think that it would be important for your child to know about. Maybe you’re watching a TV show and you pause the DVR every now and then to have a quick conversation about the storyline or the joke that was just made so we can incorporate these conversations into our daily lives in a way that’s not so intimidating and heavy for parents and for kids.
Saleema: [42:09] Just normalizing the conversation by bringing it up when it comes up naturally. If doesn’t come up naturally, we still need to bring it up and the way we can do that with little ones is to introduce it as a bedtime story with the great resources that are available now.
Jen: [42:31] So as just as a reminder, you can purchase the book that Saleema co-authored with retired nurse and educator Meg Hickling, and that’s called Talk Sex Today: What Kids Need to Know and How Adults Can Teach Them and it’s available on Amazon and you can find references for all the studies we’ve mentioned today as well as the children’s books that Selema has mentioned in the course of our conversation at YourParentingMojo.com/talk-sex-today
Also published on Medium.