Originally written one year ago today(!) and published on Natural Parents Network in November 2011. I'm republishing here for those that missed it and for new readers.
Not long after our daughter discovered she had hands, she also discovered she had a vulva. That's right, a vulva. I said it. I'm sure as natural parents, we all want our children to have a healthy view of their bodies. That may include knowing the names of his or her body parts. That may simply mean feeling no shame. There should be no shame associated with their bodies or exploring them.
That said, a toddler exploring his or her own body may make others uncomfortable. Having the freedom to explore themselves doesn't have to mean disrespecting another person's comfort levels. I like to be naked. A lot. I'm a borderline nudist myself and have no problem being naked in front of my daughters, including the one that is in the middle of puberty. In fact, I recently paused (in private) to explain that shaving was a personal preference and wasn't something anyone should feel was necessary. When she was a toddler, she also liked to explore her body. It is natural. I plan to take the same approach with our youngest that I did with her. I simply told her that touching her vulva was something she could do in private. I reiterated that it was something that should not be done in front of others.
The trouble with this approach right now is that our 1½yo doesn't understand "in private" and as far as the privacy of her room? We're still in a family bed. When my older daughter started exploring, she already had her own bed. To further complicate things (understandably so), my husband is uncomfortable with our daughter exploring her private body parts when they are... aimed at him. It seems to happen all the time. I'll have a naked baby in my lap, nursing, and she'll be checking out her equipment.
I believe I have found a way to support his comfort level as well as her freedom. I simply turn her away or shield his vision with my arm. Being so young, I also occasionally have to remind her to be nice to her own body. She can be rough, just like when she pokes Daddy in the eye or kicks him in the teeth.
There will, I'm sure, be other bumps in the road along the way. For instance, she will sometimes stare at my vulva or even reach out for it. With a toddler, I generally use distraction. I don't want her to feel shame about her curiosity, but won't have her touching my own private body parts, either. And Daddy? Well he tends to cover himself because he is uncomfortable when she stares at his penis. I always try to see things from her perspective and can totally understand why she might find it fascinating! She only sees it when Daddy is headed to/from the shower or bed, so I imagine it maintains a newness to her. I've tried to tell him that letting her get the staring out of her system might help, but we have to respect his privacy, too. Besides, I'm sure it would only be a matter of time before she would reach for that, too.
How have you approached this touchy subject with your little ones? Has there been a difference between daughter/father and son/mother interactions in your family? I hope to add a son to our family and I wonder how we'll feel about these same topics in that situation.