From shoulders to knees, what could be missing? Teaching young kids about their bodies

“Heads, shoulder, knees and toes, knees and toes¦if you’re a parent of a toddler you’ve probably heard this catchy (or annoying, depending on your musical taste) little ditty.

Its purpose is clearly to teach our little ones about their body parts.

Some of their body parts, because when you go from shoulders straight down to the knees, you’re leaving out some pretty significant information.

Yet in our sex negative culture where anything associated with children and sex is taboo it is impossible for us to even imagine a preschool teacher teaching a young child the correct words for their genitals. And as parents, it’s often a challenge for us to do it ourselves. The words don’t roll so easily off our tongues. Even though no matter what our age, the amount of time our genitals will spend actually engaged in sexual activity is a mere fraction of our lives, we have reduced them to nothing more than sex objects and decided that it is therefore inappropriate to discuss them with our children.

When we do this, we are imposing our own adult thoughts onto a baby or toddler who doesn’t see their penis or vulva as sexual in the way an adolescent or adult would. Yes, human beings are sexual creatures from birth until death, but not in the same way year after year. Can infants and young children experience pleasurable tingly feelings in their genitals? Yes. But are they cognitively aware of what that means? Not at all.

In no other area do we see such a value in withholding information from our kids. For some parents, they believe that the information itself could be damaging. Others are just not sure how or when to begin. For a child who’s just learning to speak and to name the world around them, it is not only appropriate for them to learn the correct names for their genitals, it is a critical first step in teaching them to love and appreciate their entire selves.

It doesn’t hurt to start early. Not only for your child, but also for you, as a parent/caregiver to start getting comfortable with the idea. Because if you can’t say the word “penis or “vulva out loud to a baby who has no idea what you’re saying, it’s not going to get any easier to say it to a 12 or 13 year old when you finally feel it’s time to have “the talk. Children deserve to know the correct names for all of their body parts. When we make up cutesy little names or use terms like “private parts or don’t say anything at all, we send a powerful message to our kids.

Part of that message is “I’m not comfortable discussing this with you and years later when the stakes get higher and we start to feel it is our responsibility to have a conversation about safer sex or abstinence, it is likely to be awkward for both parent and child. By that time, they’ve already started communicating with their peers about sex and picking up on a barrage of media messages and are often receiving inaccurate and disrespectful information. An ongoing conversation that evolves as your child matures is the best way to ensure an open communication with your child about sex and sexuality and that when they have a question or an issue they will come to you.

So next time you’re with your child and you start to sing “heads, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes¦ see if you can squeeze in a “penis or “vulva in there without missing a beat. You just might thank yourself for it years later.

Remi Newman

Remi Newman, MA, earned her master’s degree in sexuality education from NYU and has over ten years of experience creating and facilitating sexuality education workshops in both English and Spanish. As a new mom, she created “Having the talk before they can talk” a workshop for new and expectant parents to help them feel confident as the primary sexuality educators for their kids. Originally from the streets of Philadelphia, she now lives in Northern California with her husband, son, sister and one of her best friends. Find her online at Healthy Sex For Life.

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