Dear Mr. Dad: My 2-year-old son has discovered his genitals and spends what seems like a lot of time playing with himself. How can I get him to stop?
A: The toddler years are the age of exploration, a time when your child investigates his world and learns about all the great things he can do with his body. Giving him as much freedom as possible to explore is critical to his developing sense of autonomy and self-confidence.
Like it or not, almost all toddlers go through a genital self-exploration phase, and it’s especially common right around the time when they start making the transition from diapers to big-kid underwear. After all, when they were wearing diapers all the time, their genitals were pretty hard to grab hold of. But now they’re accessible nearly all the time. Still, it’s a little discomfiting to watch a child play with his or her own genitals, and it’s hard to resist pulling the child’s hand away or snapping, “Stop that!”
Whatever your reason, try to resist the urge to step between your child and his genitals. Making a big deal out of it can give him the message that that part of his body is dirty or that touching it is somehow wrong.
At home, the best plan is to neither encourage nor discourage genital exploration. In public places, however, gently redirect your child to another activity, telling him that private touching should be done in a private place. In addition:
• Teach the correct names for human body parts — including penis, vagina and rectum — just as you did for belly button, nose and elbow. Being able to name something makes it a lot less mysterious.
• Explain the physical differences between adults and children. Adults’ pubic hair (as well as hair on the chest, under the arms and elsewhere) and adult-size genitals are of special concern to kids. The simple explanation for kids this age is that as you get bigger, everything gets bigger, and that when you get to be a grown-up, you get hairier.
• Talk about touching. It’s simply not okay for anyone (adult or child) to touch a child in his or her private area — except if the adult is a doctor or a parent bathing a child or changing a diaper.
• Empower your child. Tell him that if someone other than his parents or a doctor touches his private areas, he should tell you right away.
Contact Brott at Dad Soup.com or @mrdad on Twitter.