At the dinner table one night, 3-year-old Paul was eating his veggies so he could grow “big and strong.” He was proud of his efforts, talking about all of the parts of his body that were growing.
“My arms are getting bigger. My legs are getting bigger. My penis is getting bigger!”
His older siblings choked on their laughter (and a carrot or two).
His parents handled the moment by saying, “Yes, Paul. You’re right. All of your body parts are getting bigger and stronger. Keep eating those veggies!”
All of his body was growing. Isn’t that cause for celebration? Pass the broccoli!
Another day, while he was in the bathtub, Paul asked: “What are these?”
He knew what his penis was, but what were those things down below?
Paul's mother responded matter-of-factly: “Those are your testicles, Paul.”
“Oh!” he exclaimed, “Testicles are fun!”
If you’ve followed this series, you know that healthy communication about sexuality begins when children are very young. Children start to understand physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of gender, even as toddlers (between ages 1 and 2). They realize that some of their friends are girls and some are boys and that there is a difference.
As this cognitive awareness develops, it’s important to instill a sense of value and importance regarding ALL of your child’s body parts. Parents should help children understand that some parts are more private than others, but in the safe haven of “home,” it’s OK to talk about private things. (Your son may still be learning that while it’s perfectly acceptable for him to talk about his penis, it’s not a great idea to talk about it using his LOUD voice in the supermarket.)
At times, we must gently offer guidelines to our children, but we need to be careful that our “correction” doesn’t translate into: “certain parts of my body are ‘bad’ and shouldn’t be mentioned.” The best way to help our children learn is by responding in a casual way to their spontaneous comments.
I’m glad that Paul had learned that he could ask his parents anything and that his natural curiosities would never be put to shame. Had Paul touched himself and asked that question in the middle of gymnastics class, his mother might have needed to gently pull him aside and explain that it’s OK to touch himself, but that’s best done in a more private place, like he did in the bathroom.
Children also learn early on that there is more to being a boy or a girl than mere anatomy. In this series, I’ve mentioned my core belief that humans are: mind, body and spirit. Our sexuality is like a treasured, golden thread that runs through every aspect of our being (it's not just confined to our "sex parts"). Our sexuality helps "define" us, from the way we look to our bent toward certain activities, our personality traits, our longings and even how our brains process learning!
Who we are as men and women simply must be more than “anatomy.”
Who we are as men or women has much to do with who we are in our spirits.
Just as we have a physical anatomy, we also have a spiritual anatomy: our SPIRATOMY! (Isn’t that fun to say? I coined the word myself, thank you!)
As toddlers and pre-schoolers, children begin to understand the nuances of masculinity and femininity as they process spoken and unspoken messages from adults.
I agree that we should not put anyone into a one-size-fits-all “box.” Gender roles may vary from family to family. (My husband was an at-home dad for the first two years of our first child’s life, and it was a beautiful experience for him and our little one.) In general, though, men and women exhibit different characteristics unique to their gender’s “Spiratomy.” These differences are noted through common observation as well as in countless scientific studies.
As parents, we lead our children to an understanding of the deep desires that feel “built-in” to every human and that are a part of who we are as men and women — the parts of us that are about anatomy and also about something more (SPIRATOMY!).
In the coming weeks, as we continue down this road of “The Talk,” (a journey I hope will continue for you even after the Patch series ends!) we'll look deeper into gender roles and give a special charge to fathers, who define their children in ways they may never have considered. (If you’re a dad, you won’t want to miss these last few articles!)
Very old words of wisdom say: "Let your conversation be full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Colossians 4:6).
“Everyone” includes our children, no matter how young (or old). One of the most “gracious” and “tasteful” gifts we can give our sons and daughters is to receive their questions openly and to answer them honestly, leading them to a deeper understanding of the men and women they were created to be.