Difficult Conversations: All About the Human Body – Teach. Play. Love. Episode 39

Kids ask parents about their bodies, and their questions are not always easy to answer. But our experts give you insight into the best ways to answer those questions in another episode exploring difficult conversations to have with your child.

“Where do babies come from?” Your child’s inevitable questions are coming — but when? What if they come up in inopportune moments or places? How should you answer? On this episode, early childhood experts (and moms!) Rachel Robertson and Claire Goss share guidance and personal tips. Tune in to learn how to prepare for body conversations, make everyone feel more comfortable, promote a healthy view of the body, and offer simple answers — even when you’re caught off-guard.  


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Resources: Difficult Conversations with Kids: Your Body 

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March 10, 2022


Claire: Hi, Rachel. I'm happy to be back with you again. And I'm excited because today we are continuing our difficult conversation series and we are gonna be talking about something that I know a lot of parents avoid. We're gonna be talking about young kids and about bodies. And if you're breaking out into a sweat just at the introduction, hang on, we're gonna make this as digestible as possible. We're gonna cover a couple of different categories today. We're gonna talk about those difficult questions that young kids ask about bodies. We're gonna talk about body safety and a little bit about body positivity.

Rachel: You know, I know this conversation is awkward. We're probably both gonna share some stories about how it was awkward for ourselves. Again, even though we are education experts, my own kids definitely caught me off-guard a few times. But I'm really glad we're diving into this topic because it's just something that a lot of parents in my career have asked me about and people feel uncomfortable talking about it. And by talking about it, hopefully, we can get rid of some of that uncomfortableness because it's just a really important thing to be able to talk about with your children.

I do wanna clarify though, we are only addressing this for young children. We are not talking about teenagers here. We are talking about young children, so that is birth to 8. And you know your child best and what type of information they can handle. So we're gonna give you some suggestions and ideas, but you also need to think about you and your child and what's best for each of your temperaments and what's the right way to approach these things.

Claire: Yes, absolutely. And at Bright Horizons, as educators, we start getting a lot of questions from kids in the classroom.

Rachel: Yes, we do.

Claire: And questions from families saying, "Oh my goodness, my child had this really awkward question last night during bath time." There's a reason that toddlers and preschoolers start asking questions about bodies. It's because they are learning to communicate about everything, but they're also learning to communicate about their bodies and its needs and how it feels and how it looks and how someone else's body looks.

And there's just a lot of learning happening about everything in this phase of life. Children are naturally fascinated about how things work. They wanna know how the blender works. They wanna know how the fridge keeps the food cold. They wanna know about their bodies too. They wanna know why their bodies look the way they do, make the noises that they make. And every parent knows that kids get a lot of amusement out of those funny noises that bodies can make. And they like to point it out at inopportune times.

They don't have a history. Young children don't have a history of feeling self-conscious about their bodies. They don't feel shame about their bodies. That means they also don't understand privacy and modesty. Those are actually, you know, not bad things, but we do have to help teach them about these things, a few things that they can do to learn about privacy and modesty without squelching their curiosity.

Rachel: Yeah. Exactly. So we get kind of awkward about it as adults, but it's really they're learning about it like anything else. They're learning to read and communicate and we're all about helping them with that and teaching them some parameters around it and strategies around it. And we should approach this pretty much the same way as they need help learning some boundaries that are appropriate, but we don't want to give them shame or self-consciousness about it. And we have to really check ourselves first. So the first thing right off the bat, especially when you're...you know, I know people are imagining those crazy questions that they either have already gotten from kids or that they are anticipating that they're gonna get from their kids and just taking a deep breath about how they're gonna answer those questions.

But before you even get there, just thinking about what you're bringing to that conversation. What kind of hangups do you have, how were you raised? Is that affecting how you're thinking about it? Just be aware of all that so you don't bring it to the conversation and influence that conversation negatively. Take a deep breath, try to relax. If you act tense about it or stressed about it, they will pick up on that. And then you're communicating to them something about this is not an appropriate topic. This is shameful. We shouldn't talk about that. As hard as it might be to do, practice in the mirror or practice the conversations, practice answering the questions, do it with your spouse or a friend, or again, yourself in the mirror, whatever you need to do to be ready for it.

Claire: I think another thing to really think about, I said, you know, you can practice the questions and your answers, but consider what you say about your own body. If you're focused on superficial things, always talking about dieting, always talking about your hair doesn't look good, whatever you might be talking about, you're not strong enough, they are also picking up on that. So you can have those feelings, certainly. We're not gonna get into that about how adults feel about themselves, but just know that when you're saying that around your children, like anything else, they're absorbing that. Your modeling and how yourself talk is as much of a teacher or probably more of a teacher than anything else.

Rachel: So for just thinking about what I just said, I'll say that like I can reflect on my own family and think, you know, my family was actually fairly modest. We didn't talk a lot about these things, but oddly, my mom was also a women's health nurse. So things got very clinical and there was a very interesting mix of conversations on this topic. I remember in high school, my mom was an instructor in the school of nursing and I would be so embarrassed because she'd have all her textbooks in the living room. I'm like, "Mom, you have women's health textbooks. My friends are not gonna know." And she still thinks it's funny to this day.

But I know that, I know that I had a pretty clinical approach to it because of my mom's nursing background. And so I had to think about that and how I brought that to my conversations with my kids.

Claire: Yes. And like I said, questions are gonna come from kids because they're curious. I will say practicing how to reply is wonderful. Sometimes these questions might come up during a moment when you can't answer them. For example, in the grocery checkout line, when that's when your child decides to say, "Where do babies come from?"

Rachel: Really loudly.

Claire: Of course, always so loud. And you wanna be sure to, again, not bring any tension or awkwardness, if you can. But you can say, "What a great question? I can see you're curious about that. Let's talk about it tonight." And then do come back to it. If you don't, then they're gonna find the information somewhere else. We've given that advice before, just worth reiterating. So then when it is a time to have that conversation to answer that question, where do babies come from, for example, keep your answers really simple, okay? So an example of this is I've certainly been through that conversation with my kids. One of my children asked me once about their belly button. "What does my belly button do?"

And instead of keeping it simple, I did not take my own advice. And I had read all the books. I had been a teacher. I knew how I should have approached that answer. But instead, for some reason, I launched into an entire explanation about umbilical cords and how they get...you take a pair of scissors and you slice the umbilical cord after birth. And I look over, my child's crying because I've somehow made this a horrifying image in their head. I could have just said, "Why are you wondering about your belly button? What do you wanna know about that?" And it turns out that they did not need all that extra information that I just decided to spew at him, poor child. So let them tell you why they're asking, right, then you know what information to dispense.

Rachel: Yeah. I mean, the things you're saying are a couple of really powerful pieces of advice here. So, first of all, you don't have to answer it right away. It's okay. So you can say, and I did that with my own kids is that's a good question for us to talk about when we get home, you know, just be ready for that response. Again, you know, like everyone's watching you if that question's happening in the checkout line and everyone's there with you, all those other parents are rooting for you, but that just calm approach to it and giving yourself some space for that and also asking them what they think so you know where they're coming from, what is their real interest?

Your son might have been wondering why there's lint in his belly button and that's all he wanted to know about it. But you gave him way more than he wanted or needed in that moment. And then asking them those questions will lead you to a conversation asking them what they think. And that will really help shape that conversation. You also wanna avoid lying, sort of started talking about that too, is I remember my oldest daughter when she said, we were driving home from school one day and she said, "Mom, how do the men help with being pregnant?" And I did say, "Why are you asking me that question?" And she said, "Well, everybody says we are pregnant, and I don't get it. Does the man take a turn or something?"

And then I did say, well, this is a good one to talk about at home. Yes, I did take a little break to like, "What are we gonna talk about here? Is this the time to have this conversation?" But I did not refuse to do any lying. So we went through the whole process of what do you wanna know? What are your questions so I can understand it a little bit more? And then it was time to have that conversation. But I knew that because of all those steps I took first.

She totally threw me off with that question. It was a good question. I wasn't ready for it, but we handled it that way because I gave myself a little bit of time.

Claire: Yeah. I think another important point here is we're gonna go there. We talk about genitals, right? When you're talking to your toddler and preschooler during bath time or diaper changes about body parts, always give them the correct anatomical name. It just, again, makes it less taboo. If you give something a nickname, it sort of implies that it needs to be shadowed somehow, or it needs to be cloaked in some way.

Rachel: Yeah. There's a difference between teaching about privacy and modesty, and shame and secrets. And we wanna help distinguish those two things.

Claire: Right. So definitely talk about bodies, label all the body parts. It's a wonderful toddler activity. It's great for vocabulary. It's a wonderful interaction. Where's your nose, there's your nose. Where's your elbow, here's your elbow. You don't necessarily need to say where's your vulva. But, you know, when it's again, during a diaper change, during bath time, it's a great time to label all the body parts and talk about them in that non-stressful, this is not a tense conversation. Reiterate for your young children who is allowed to see those genitals, right? Parents and caregivers and the doctor, pretty much the end of the list, right? And then they know to come to you if someone else asks to see them, it's a body safety issue.

Also, another really important thing that we work on in my family with both my sons and daughter is what does the word "stop" mean? What does the word "don't touch me" mean? No, what does that mean? We talk about it all the time. We model it in our play. So very nothing to do with genitals at all. But if someone is tickling someone or if someone is...my son will give a hand massage sometimes to my husband and he'll say, "Stop now." And the first time someone says, stop, you stop.

Rachel: Yes. Yep. And we can't overstate how important that is. We need kids to understand the power of those words. So even if you are play tickling, that happens a lot, and someone says, "Stop, stop." A lot of people will just keep going. It's very powerful to teach your kids, "Okay, we're stopping." They might not have meant it, but then they need to say something else. And you teach them that, that body safety, that you are the owner of your body, you get to say what happens with your body is really important. And they need to know that from the start.

Claire: That's right. It's okay mid-play for someone to change their mind that this game isn't fun anymore. The way that you are holding my hand, I don't like it anymore. That is totally okay in our family for someone to say, "No, no, thank you to that now." And we say they only have to say no once and that's the end of the conversation.

Rachel: Yeah. I think that's a good point to talk about just one more moment about if somebody can change their mind in the middle of something, and we should also, as adults, we often will say like, go hug that person, or you should do this, or something about physical touch and not giving children a choice. So maybe you want your daughter when you're leaving, you know, to hug grandma, maybe you could say, "How would you like to say goodbye to grandma?" So you're not forcing them to do it. They'll probably come up with the idea of a hug or something like that, but they shouldn't have to do things like that.

Claire: Right. It shouldn't be forced. And then talking to them doesn't feel good to your body. Does it? What a powerful message you're giving your preschooler. And then they can carry that language through the rest of their life. You know, I don't feel like doing that. That's not what my body feels like doing right now.

Rachel: Yeah, exactly.

Claire: So that's all one part of this early childhood learning.

Rachel: And you might think we're taking it a little seriously here. I know that some people would think that, but I'll just say sometimes it is lighter. So I remember a time when my daughter said, I think we were talking about hugging grandma or something, or how do you say sorry to grandma? And she said, "I don't wanna do a hug. I'm all out of hugs." I said, "Well, what will help you get more hugs?" And she said, "A hug from you." So I gave her a hug and then she had one suddenly to go apologize to grandma. So it's not like it's just this hard no or stop, but it's just honoring those words and letting them make the choices about what they're gonna do. What kind of behaviors, what kind of touch they are interested in in that moment?

Claire: Yeah. So when young kids are learning a lot about bodies and body parts and how to talk about bodies and how does your body feel, that's when they also start noticing differences in bodies. They'll notice differences between a person who's been assigned female at birth and a person who's been assigned male at birth. They'll also notice differences in skin colors, differences in nose sizes. Why does my friend have freckles? What are those dots on their face? Again, they often notice these things in the least opportune moments of your day.

Rachel: Right. Usually in public with a big point thing, "Why is that person...?" And that's literally what they're asking. They're not assigning judgment, they're just asking why. Because it's different and they notice differences and we encourage them to notice differences in everything else. We just don't like it when they do it about people.

Claire: So let's also talk now about, you mentioned this a little bit earlier, about body negativity and the way you think about your body and talk about your body will directly impact the way that your child thinks and feels and talks about their body someday. It's really...and we talked a lot about this a little bit in the Raising Girls episode, but not commenting on your child's looks, physical looks, as often as the effort they put into something or how they put their outfit together and what a creative person you are, that really reduces the amount of body-shaming they'll feel when they notice their body's different from their sister's body or their brother's body.

Rachel: Yeah, exactly. And you wanna make sure that, I mean, I notice this a lot with older girls on their social media, almost everybody's response to anything that gets posted is about being pretty.

Claire: Yes.

Rachel: So I refuse to do that. I will talk about anything except for their looks or their friend's looks or anything. Sometimes I'll see someone go, you're pretty and...but there's still the you're pretty. So we really have taken apart social media or commercials. And so like, what is the point of that woman dress like that to sell this item? And when you give that critical thinking about something, it takes the power away from it. You can notice the airbrushing, you can notice the non-reality of it and that can help kids balance their expectations of themselves and others with reality and what is more appropriate and healthy to accept.

Claire: And, of course, we're not saying never talk to your kids about their bodies, but you're emphasizing how strong they are, how capable they are. What do you love about your body, right? I love that my fingers are long and it helps me play the flute. I'll talk about those kinds of things, how I feel so grateful today that I woke up on my two feet and I was able to take the dog for a 2-mile walk this morning. That's something I said this morning to my kids, "Wow, I feel great. My body got me out of bed this morning."

Rachel: Yeah. The things we take for granted too. Yeah. And it's good, if you're a role model, if you have health issues, or you wanna set some goals for yourself to talk about it and that this is important to me because I wanna feel healthier, not about looks and think about what you say when you're out in public or when you're talking about. They're listening to you talk to your family member about another family member and your focus on looks or what someone was wearing or something. They're paying attention to that.

You know, I have two girls as I've mentioned, and they are both athletes and they're both tall and they've both gotten a lot of attention. I'm tall. We all get all this attention for being tall. And I'm so proud of my girls because they have figured out how to love their big feet, how to love their strong bodies and their strong legs. And that's not always true and it's hard to get there. What you were talking about earlier is love the parts of your body, what your body does for you, not just what it looks like. And that is so much more powerful for children, and starting that as part of your gratitude exercise and just talking about it every day is such a good habit to start.

Claire: Yes.

Rachel: So I know we've touched on a few things related to difficult conversations around body, and I hope it's been helpful. We help everyone feel a little less worried about body conversations, prepare to have them in a healthy way that make you and your child more comfortable with this difficult topic.