This article is written by my dearest friend and amazing fellow therapist Shelby DeBause, LMFT. She is an expert on the topic of childhood sexual trauma with a focus on prevention and healthy identity formation. I am greatly honored to offer you a super helpful read that will empower and prepare you. Shelby is 50% of Ashby Consulting, an organization committed to producing media and content that keeps kiddos safe. She co-authored the book, “It’s… Just Private.” I invite you to read as she discusses her specialization and awesome expertise. She’s amazing. ~ Adele
Is this Play Okay?
by Shelby DeBause
If there’s one thing that makes parents, grandparents, and teachers cringe, it’s the thought of their little tikes doing something that we as adults view as sexual. Ick. Yikes. Not my kid…
As a therapist and a parent, I’ve seen an array of horrified reactions when adults find out little Johnny and little Adam have been comparing genitals, or that Madison encourages Seth to kiss her on the lips with tongue like in the movies, or that Micah keeps pulling his pants down and flashing his bare bottom. Our tendency as adults is to avoid a deeper talk with kids, freak out, and just tell them to stop with no real explanation. “It’s just bad” we tell them. “The kids can’t handle that sort of topic” we tell ourselves. “I’ll wait until they’re older”, or “I don’t want to make him or her uncomfortable by talking much about it”. But here’s the truth, kids aren’t uncomfortable talking about sexualized play—we are. Most young children haven’t yet learned that certain body parts are taboo to talk about, that body curiosity is frowned upon, or that something called “sex” even exists. Between kids of the same age range, and in the absence of coercion, these sorts of behaviors are developmentally normal. Does that mean we allow the behaviors? Of course not! As a matter of fact, it’s best to talk to your child early and often about body boundaries in order to prevent these sorts of incidents. However, if it happens, change your view from seeing it as something awful, to seeing it as a teachable moment. Never shame a child for these incidents, and make sure to ask how the incident made her or him feel. Open the conversation, and use it as a way to help children understand the beauty and purpose of their bodies.
The Bible tells us that we are to regard the body with both respect and adoration. Our bodies, like our souls, belong to God. What a lovely way to introduce the topic to a child! “Avery, remember that God made you, right? Well, there are ways he wants you to take care of yourself and your body. Let’s talk about those…”.
Perhaps the most succinct and telling scripture about how God wants us to use our bodies (and of course teach our children to use theirs) comes from 1 Corinthians 19-20: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies.”
How do we want our children to honor God with their bodies? An obvious area is in respecting that some parts are meant to be private. It is vital that we do not give children the idea that any of their body parts are gross or shouldn’t be named. God made every part, and we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139). Parts like genitals and bottoms have their useful functions, but those functions are, at least in our culture, meant to be rather private as well. “Private” is very different than shameful or embarrassing. If we teach kids to be ashamed of body parts or even sexualized urges, whether through our words or through our body language and avoidance, we guarantee that they will not talk to us when they need guidance or protection the most. This is dangerous. Quite frankly, a child who learns that mom never wants to talk or hear about his penis isn’t going to tell mom if someone has been touching it that shouldn’t be.
We are teaching our kids to honor and care for their bodies, and in this we are also helping to keep them safe. By the same token, we teach kids to have good manners and show honor towards other children. It simply isn’t polite or appropriate to touch or look at the private parts of other children, and God wants us to show other bodies just as much respect and care as we show our own. Part of our job as adults in caring for our children is encouraging them to ask us questions about bodies when they have them. They need to feel comfortable to ask us if certain actions are okay, and of course, to tell us immediately if an adult or another child has treated them in such a way as to make them feel uncomfortable. Rather than be intimidated when kids come to us with these issues, let us rejoice when this occurs! We get to help guide them in God-centered ways to show love and care for themselves and others. We get to affirm that they are “fearfully and wonderfully” made. We get to be a part of the team of adults around them that says, “I’m so sorry that made you uncomfortable. Thank you for telling me about this. I’m going to help you talk to your parent/teacher/etc. and make sure you feel safe and comfortable next time,” or “I’m your mom, and I always want to hear about these things. Let’s make a plan to help you feel safer and better.”, or even, “I know that was fun, but let’s talk about why it isn’t a good idea to do that anymore”.
In summary, let’s celebrate bodies as gifts from God and let’s help our kids do the same. Let’s invite conversations and curiosity, and avoid avoidance! I promise you, that if you are in any capacity of your life have children in it, one of them will one day need to talk to you about a sexualized topic. Be ready to answer the call–and listen!
Shelby DeBause is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Genesis Counseling Center in Hampton, VA, where she is a lead clinician. She is also half of Ashby Consulting, a partnership dedicated to educating and empowering children and their caregivers. She is co-author of the book It’s Just Private, which helps guide conversations about healthy body boundaries. Her new book, Ringo the Elf, will be out later this year. Shelby stays busy outside of work having fun with her calm husband, wild kids, and big goofy bulldog. You can connect with her by following Ashby Consulting at: www.Facebook.com/ashleyandshelby/ or check out her book at https://www.amazon.com/Its-Just-Private-Shelby-DeBause/dp/1612253393.