Toddlers begin to understand gender when they are around 3 years old. They notice the differences between boys and girls. It is common for them to show each other their genitals or to ask their friends to show theirs.
This is the same curiosity your child has for other things he is learning about. Try not to react with shock if you catch your toddler showing his genitals or looking at a friend’s. Reacting harshly can cause your toddler to feel shameful. Instead, calmly tell your toddler that his genitals are private. Help him and his friend move on to a different activity.
Tips for teaching your child about sex:
- Talk with him about his curiosity.
- Explain that boys have penises and girls have vaginas. Use the same tone of voice as you would when explaining other differences in his world —like some people have red hair, some have black hair.
- Get books for toddlers that help teach about these differences.
- If your toddler seems more curious about genitals than other things, tell your toddler’s doctor. Sometimes this can be a sign of abuse.
In this newsletter we have described the best ways to guide children. None of these use physical punishment. Physical punishment does not help children learn to behave.
Physical punishment —such as pinching, hitting, spanking, or shaking —can seriously hurt a child. If your child is bruised or injured by physical punishment, this is considered abuse. Depriving a child of food or care, or keeping a child tied up or locked in a room is, of course, abuse. You can also abuse a child with words. Threats of physical or other feared punishment are abuse.
It is abusive to threaten that scary things—that the bogeyman will take him, that loved ones will stop loving him or leave him or die —will happen to the child if he doesn’t behave. It is abusive to make a child believe he is unloved, stupid, wicked, or hopeless. Our suggestions on discipline are written to help parents teach without abuse. Make sure that your babysitters and child care providers are using effective discipline —and not abusive punishment.
Stress management helps parents control their tensions so that they do not take out their anger and frustration on their children. Children who are abused or unfairly or harmfully punished are more likely to become uncooperative and difficult than children who learn the rules and are disciplined gently and patiently.
Your child is growing more independent and capable every day. She can sort and put away forks and spoons. She can carry piles of clean clothes to the bedroom. She can set the table with silverware.
It takes time and energy for you to show her how to do a new job, but it’s worth the effort. Children often say, “Me do it” as they strongly promote their right to become their own person. “Let’s do it together” or “I will help too” usually works better than “You can’t do that” or “No, I’ll do it,” or “You’re too little.”
Encourage your child. It will build her confidence and help her grow into a helpful, responsible person.