Don’t treat body parts as shameful
Shame about body parts, Ms. Van der Doef says, comes from a child’s environment: they learn from their caregivers when to be squeamish and embarrassed. By normalizing all body parts and speaking of them regularly and straightforwardly with correct language, we send the message that every part of a person’s body is healthy, wholesome and worthy.
As I learned from the Dutch example, normalization goes beyond talk: day-to-day nonsexual nudity — in homes, picture books, mixed-gender school bathrooms, kids’ television programs, and public changing areas and wading pools — reinforces the tenet that bodies are nothing to be ashamed of and nothing we can’t discuss (in words any caregiver, teacher or health provider will recognize) if need be.
As we respond to kids’ natural, healthy curiosity about the human form, we can instill in them the idea that all people are born with wonderful bodies capable of feeling pleasure and pain.
Teach the importance of consent
It can be daunting to explain the emotional and relational aspects of human sexuality. Yet this is our richest opportunity to instill empathy, consent, inclusiveness and egalitarianism.
Preschool is the age to teach children the hallmarks of a healthy, trusting friendship. Children at this age can be made aware of the gender-role stereotypes they’ve absorbed (for example, girls like pink and boys have short hair). A simple role-play with stuffed animals in which a “girl” teddy bear wants to play football and a “boy” animal wants to wear a dress can teach it’s hurtful to limit one anther’s opportunities.
Preschoolers and even toddlers can learn rules for playing contact games with friends such as tickling, chase and “doctor”: everyone must agree happily to the game; no hurting allowed; anyone can say “no” or change their mind. As adults, we can model the importance of consent when children want to climb on us by reminding them to ask first. We can model respect for the importance of consent, too, when a child is reluctant to give a high-five, hug or kiss — especially to an adult, and this does include Grandma — by suggesting a contact-free alternative like a verbal greeting or a wave.
Elsbeth Reitzema, a sex education consultant and curriculum author for the sexual health institute Rutgers in the Netherlands, says it’s impossible to warn children of every scenario and impossible, too, to protect them 100 percent of the time. Specific scenarios such as the lap-patting relative or lollipop-offering stranger can be good to mention, but it’s most important to instill an understanding of consent. This goes for friends, relatives, teachers and even physicians. When children expect to ask, give and deny consent at their own discretion, sexual transgressions stick out as clear violations.