Although it wasn’t the first time, she took a close interest this weekend at that particular appendage that makes me a Daddy and not a Mommy. “I wanna see,” she said.
My spouse, right behind her, assured me it was fine. This is normal, she has told me. She had the same curiosities when she was a girl, there’s no harm in showing her. Of course, I know she’s right; children have no concept of the imposed moral standards we adults assign to our genitals. Toddlers only know when they see something different, and this is something different she doesn’t see very often.
So, despite how strange and weird it felt, I lowered my towel and let her look.
She leaned in very closely, eyes wide with wonder. Then with a large, delighted smile, she declared:
“It’s like an elephant!”
Which is, of course, the nicest thing anyone anywhere has ever said to me.
In the event that you think I recount this story as way of bragging, let me be the first to remind everyone of how it feels to return to your elementary school as a grown-up, surveying the classrooms and thinking, “Wow, it seems so small!” I know that everything seems enormous to a kid.
No, I do not tell this story to brag, but rather to point out the delicate but important task that we parents have in helping our children appropriately explore their own bodies and engage their questions about what makes us the creatures that we are.
As strange as it feels to have your daughter want to see you naked and then willingly comply, I trust my spouse’s insight. I don’t recall having the same brazen curiosity about my opposite-gender parent as a toddler (I may have, but that isn’t a conversation I’m about to initiate with my mother). But my spouse does remember having the same curiosity and that her parents both treated that curiosity with quiet respect. I can also report that Curly Fries has an equal amount of curiosity towards her same-gendered parent and often asks to see her boobies. She even asks to see my boobies, although she’s always disappointed.
Curiosity about our own bodies starts very young. The reason for this is that curiosity in general starts very young. Our children take their cues about what is an appropriate subject for discussion from us. And there is no quicker way to create a sense of anxiety in a child than to shame or scold them for being curious. Sometimes this is reaction that I want to create: I never in any way regret the anxiety she feels when I shout at her not to touch the hot baking tray that just came out of the oven. I want her to feel anxiety about hot metal and sharp things and other objects that might cause her bodily harm. But what I do not want her to feel anxiety and shame about is her own body.
There’s plenty to explore in why our culture considers our genitalia (and breasts) as body parts that must be covered and concealed in polite company. I’m not here to get into that or to suggest that we should change it. I do want to invite parents to consider the ways they help their children learn about how to properly honor their bodies.
I have a distinct memory of my grandfather taking me to the bathroom to pee as a four-year-old. When I dropped my pants and held my elephant to pee, he scolded me and told I shouldn’t touch it. I was shocked and puzzled. No one else had ever told me this before. Furthermore, it made urinating into the toilet without splashing very difficult. Even at such a young age, I remember thinking that it was a bad idea not to hold yourself steady while peeing. Later, I asked my parents why Granddad had told me not to touch it. I can’t recall the reason they gave me for him saying that to me, but they reassured me that it was fine and that holding aim was indeed a good policy.
I went on with my life, but this incident clearly stuck in my mind. The best I can figure now as an adult is that my grandfather had been taught that touching yourself was sinful or wrong and that this apparently applied in every possible situation. Seeing me do this must have caused him distress, so he passed it along to me. If that’s what happened, I’m sad for my grandfather that he had to live with that kind of deep shame, believing that a part of his own body was repulsive enough that it couldn’t be touched.
I don’t want my child to experience shame about her body. I want her to learn to love it, treasure it, and above all, respect it. I’m already having nightmares about what to teach her about her body when she hits puberty. I’m hoping that I can start that education now by teaching her that her body is wonderful, that it is hers, that it deserves to be respected and honored, and that anyone who won’t honor and respect her body needs to be forcefully removed from her presence.
There was a movement in ancient Christianity that held that the physical body, the fleshly existence, was wicked and evil and inferior to the spirit. Therefore, their logic followed, they could do anything they wanted to or with their bodies. We don’t protect or preserve the things we believe are dirty and shameful. If we don’t understand the value in something, we will not take measures to honor it, and we will not stop others from exploiting or dishonoring it.
All of us live within our bodies. They are more than just the vehicle that transports us around; they are who we are. We are embodied creatures, and every part of our body is a part of our self. I want my child to learn that she deserves respect – every part of her. Whether that means learning healthy eating habits or respecting that her sexuality is something to be treasured, I intend to honor her curiosity about her body by honoring her curiosity about mine. Boundaries, of course, must also be taught. But we rarely respect boundaries if we don’t believe they are protecting something valuable.
After making her elephant comparison, her mother and I laughed for several minutes straight. She had no idea why we were so tickled, but when I regained some composure, I agreed that yes, I could see how it was like an elephant. Then she went on with her day, picking up her blankie and heading off into the house to play. To her, it probably seemed like a small moment. I intend, however, to let each of those small moments build in her the foundations of recognizing that our bodies are wonderful things that we should thrill to inhabit, and that they deserved to be treated by others with dignity, respect, and wonder equal to our own.