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The Naked Truth: Teaching Kids about Their Bodies, Age by Age

Before I had children, I assumed I'd be the kind of mother who'd never be embarrassed by my child's sexual nature. There'd be no question or behavior that would render me speechless, and I'd be just too evolved to blurt out the ridiculous warnings issued back in my grandparents' time ("Don't play with that thing; it'll fall off!").

After all, my parents were open about sex with me, so why would it be difficult to be open about sex with my own child?

I'm humbled to admit that the first time I noticed my newborn's sexual nature, those good intentions were suddenly on a time machine heading back to the 1950s.

As I changed Oliver's diaper one morning when he was about 6 months old, I noticed that his penis was red and swollen, up to maybe four times its normal size. It was enormous—for a baby penis, that is. My sleep-deprived brain burst into a frenzy of maternal paranoia: Could it be an infection? A blockage? I shrieked for my husband, who came in, took one look, and laughed. "He's got an erection," he said. As if on cue, Oliver grabbed hold of his penis and grinned at me.

It was a classic "duh" moment. I knew baby boys got erections. But it was one thing to read about them and another to see my infant son actually sporting one. As a new mom, I was anxious about every physical change in my baby's body, but my first encounter with a sexual one threw me for a loop. I wondered: Did I cause the erection during the diaper change? Should I have avoided touching his penis when it was hard? Did I hurt him by diapering over it? Does this mean I'm going to be utterly clueless when I'm confronted by his evolving sexuality as he grows?

Daunted by the thought of the next 16 years (plus) of sex education, I spoke with Justin Richardson, M.D, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia and Cornell universities. "Even though we're so hip and cool," he says of today's crop of moms and dads, "we're as anxious as previous generations were about discussing sex." Our parents and grandparents handled a child's sexuality by pretending it didn't exist. Today's parents think we ought to be oh-so-matter-of-fact. So why do we get all squirrelly when we undiaper morning erections or see our 4-year-old mimicking Britney Spears's pelvic thrusts?

We are evolutionarily conditioned to avoid our children's sexuality, says Dr. Richardson. (Sigh of relief. I'm not a prude.) The feelings of discomfort and dread that surface when we have to acknowledge their sexual nature can be attributed to the "incest taboo," a psychological fire wall that keeps us from having sex with close relatives. The "ick" feeling we get when we picture our parents having sex, for instance, is part of that taboo, which works so well that it often prevents us from talking to our children about sex.

"You don't have to wait till you feel comfortable," Dr. Richardson says. "It may never feel comfortable. Acknowledge to yourself that you may be anxious, but set that aside and go ahead anyway." In their book, Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask), Dr. Richardson and coauthor Mark Schuster, M.D., stress that it takes practice, which is actually a good thing because sex shouldn't be a one-time topic of conversation. Bringing it up over time is the best way to make sure your child knows it's not shameful. Plus, his own sexuality will grow and change. It isn't something that will pop up during puberty—it's right here, right now, staring up at you from his changing table. Here's what's going on down there:

The Wonder Years

Birth to age 3

Your baby's day is full of discovery, and one of the easiest and most fun things to explore is—you guessed it—her own body.

She'll learn about the pleasure of touch through the lavish attention you bestow on her every perfect body part. At the same time, she'll experience spontaneous genital arousal—lubrication in the vagina (or, in a boy, a penile erection). Don't worry, you didn't cause it. At some point during infancy, she'll even discover that touching her genitals feels much better than, say, touching her toes or tummy.

Like all babies, Eileen's son, Seamus, was curious about his body—all of it. She knew this was natural and healthy, but when he played with his penis and scrotum during diaper changes, the Chelmsford, Massachusetts, mom admits, "I felt like a voyeur waiting for him to finish, and I'd also want to get on to something else. I mean, just how long do you let the party go on?" Rather than end it abruptly, she says, "I'd let him play for a minute or two while I was wiping, and then I'd make funny faces or start blowing kisses on his tummy, which would bring his hands up. Then I could put on the new diaper and we were done."

That's a smart way to deal with a baby. As she gets older, you'll need to talk to her about her body. Many of us are more comfortable using slang terms for penises, breasts, vulvas, and vaginas, but the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents avoid making up names for body parts. It gives children the idea that there's something bad about their proper names.

In the rush to teach their child the names for their eyes, ears, and elbows, some parents never seem to get around to teaching the names for genitals. One study found that girls under 3 knew the word "penis" better than "vagina" or "vulva." Most of the boys were taught "penis" but were even less likely than the girls to know what to call female genitals.

Even as you're open and honest about the proper names, toddlerhood's the time to set your guidelines for modesty. Some parents love watching their little ones scamper about au naturel. Others think that streaking is an activity best left in the '70s.

Whatever your beliefs about nudity and modesty, toddlers are naturally uninhibited. So if you're feeling a little iffy about your daughter's Lady Godiva—like behavior but you don't want her to associate nudity with "naughty," Dr. Richardson and Dr. Schuster have three guidelines:

1) Be consistent with your rules, but adapt them as your child grows.

2) Explain your reasons in a way that doesn't make your child feel ashamed. You could say, "Now that you're a big girl, you should cover up. There are special parts of your body that are not for everyone to see."

3) There should be at least one setting during the day when your child's nakedness is acceptable and enjoyed, such as during bathtime. "The goal is to distinguish your attitude toward her body, which is always favorable, from your opinion of her showing it in certain situations," says Dr. Richardson. This'll help you raise a child who is modest about public nudity but not uncomfortable with her body.

Big-Question Time

Ages 3 to 5

Now that your child has explored his own body and has the correct names for all of his parts, he's curious about everyone else.

When the questions start, it's all right if you don't always have a ready answer. "If you're not prepared to say something helpful, it's okay to collect your thoughts," says Dr. Richardson. That's pretty much what Kim, a mom of three in Phoenix, did when her son, James, 5, informed her during a drive to school that a boy moose had to put his penis in a girl moose to make babies. He then asked, "Did Daddy do that to you?" This so flustered Kim that she rear-ended the car ahead of her. "There was no damage," she says, "but try explaining to the driver why I hit him!" She told her son that it was too complicated a question to answer on the way to kindergarten but that she'd answer it that night, which she did. "He asked a lot of follow-up questions, and I answered them all honestly." She adds, "But I recommend being careful about letting little kids watch the Discovery Channel!"

Rather than wait for the queries, strike up the conversation yourself. You'll not only avoid a fender bender, but you'll also help your child feel comfortable talking to you. Many parents put off discussing sex and sexuality because they think there's a "right age" to do so and any information beforehand won't be understood—or will be harmful. Actually, says the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, it's a good idea to give children information about sexuality two years before you think they'll need it. "At four, a child is old enough to understand the concept of creation—a baby who exists now didn't exist in the past but was created by his parents," says Dr. Richardson. And knowing that now will only help him figure out the more complicated stuff later.

Some parents worry that acknowledging their child's sexuality will encourage him to experiment. But, says Dr. Richardson, most kids, when presented with the mechanics of sex, say, "Ew!" and leave it at that. And as for getting a kick out of what his own body can do—well, as Oliver proved, that's been going on a long time already.

One day Susan of Avon, Connecticut, heard her son, then 5, and an overnight guest giggling in the bathtub. "I realized they were comparing their little erections," she said. "They were both laughing about how touching their penises made them stiff." She says it was hard to keep a straight face, but she explained to them that it was okay to touch their own penises but that they were private parts. Parents should set a standard for masturbation anywhere between the ages of 2 and 5, depending on their child and their own views about modesty. This is also the age to make sure your child knows about "good touch" and "bad touch," and that he should come to you if someone has crossed the line.

When Honesty Pays Off

Ages 5 and up

Your child is off to school, bringing with her all her knowledge of sexuality—and so are her classmates. She'll probably hear sexual slang, as she's bombarded with new (and often incorrect) sex information from friends, TV shows, music, and movies. And as she develops her own incest taboo, she may grow uncomfortable talking about sex with you.

The payback from your being open and honest with her in her younger years is that it's easier now to grapple with the more complicated sexual issues kids are hearing about, such as homosexuality, contraception, and sexually transmitted diseases. At this point in her life, your child will be discovering not only the facts about these topics but how you feel about them too. For instance, you can let her know what you'd think if you learned someone you know is gay. That way, she can take her cue from you in the future.

Rajean, a Vandalia, Ohio, mom, realized that her daughter, Emily, was pretty comfortable discussing what used to be taboo topics when she was 5. She was drawing a self-portrait at daycare when her teacher complimented her on it but prompted her to find "something missing that you use every day." She'd expected Emily to add a nose, but the little girl matter-of-factly replied, "But I don't know how to draw a vagina."

There may still be red faces and giggling later on when Rajean and her daughter discuss vaginas in other contexts, but at least Emily seems to get that vaginas themselves aren't anything to be ashamed of. Maybe someday she'll be the mom who doesn't freak out over her son's erection. In any case, Oliver's certainly enlightened me.