How to explain safe behaviors between children - to a child


Dear Stop It Now!,

I feel like I've done all the right things in talking to my children about private parts, boundaries etc. Twice my 8 year old daughter has told me she and her same aged friend have talked about and looked at each other's private parts even though she knows this is against our rules (and she told me because she knows not to keep secrets). So when I tell her its normal to be curious and you can look at/touch your own body, BUT you cannot look at your friend's or show your friend your body because its inappropriate and against the safety rules she says "BUT WHY? How is it not safe? We are both ok with it and we are both so curious and we have a right to be curious." I'm basically saying "Because I said so!" I'm hoping you can help me provide a more substantial, meaningful answer for this question.

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Dear Proactive Parent,

It sure sounds like you are indeed doing all the right things here, and wow does your daughter sound like a smart, bright and inquisitive child! It's great that she's asking these questions as that is showing that she has some really great critical thinking skills – and I hope you continue to foster this trait in her personality! But it sounds like she really put you in a spot; now how should you answer?

Safety in Context
I think I would draw a comparison to other things that are healthy for her to be curious about, but that she still needs supervision and guidance around. Some kids love swimming in the ocean, but a parent wouldn’t just walk away because they their child said “it’s okay, I know what I’m doing.” It’s important for kids to explore, and it’s important for adults to keep them safe. And sometimes that involves making choices that a child may not fully understand – but here may be some ideas you can touch on for her.

You can let your daughter know that it’s a good idea for her to wait until she’s older to be able to make these decisions safely, as there are a lot of other skills – like non-verbal communication skills – that she is still learning (likely things you’re teaching her right now) that can help her navigate complex situations like these. So all these lessons she’s learning about consent, how to check-in with someone when they say “yes” but it seems like they want to say “no” or “I’m not sure” – are all lessons she’ll carry with her into her first sexual experiences as a teenager.

So, though it’s okay for her to wonder about her friend’s vulva and vagina, it’s important for her to listen to the rule about not asking other people to pull down their pants or to see their genitals. Though it sounds like her friend agrees to these things, there are many reasons why people sometimes agree to things they’re not comfortable with and it’s easy for kids to cross a line quickly – and sexual boundaries can be tricky to navigate for a younger child. It’s hard for kids to say “no” to someone they care about, someone they’re friends with and someone they trust – so sometimes children go along with something they may not be totally comfortable with. 

Finding Answers to Natural Curiosity
Also, when kids are young, it’s best they explore their own bodies and get their questions answered through their trusted caregivers of course, but also resources like age-appropriate books and websites until they’re able to have a better understanding about what sexual behaviors can mean for themselves and their partner or friend’s physical, emotional and developmental wellbeing – until they’re able to truly consent to sexual behavior. You can even say that sometimes kids play sexual games, and they don’t realize that in fact they’ve hurt their friend. Now that doesn’t mean that she will, but that’s why it’s important that she wait to play games involving sexual behaviors until she’s older.

Consent and Young Children
In fact, the law says that at this age (8 years-old) she’s actually not old enough to consent to any sexual activity – even this looking game she and her friend have agreed to. Make sure she knows that of course this doesn’t mean she’s going to get in trouble with the law, but it’s recognized that children don’t have the emotional maturity and developmental knowledge to make good decisions about sexual activity – and that’s why the laws protect kids in this way. And, for those same reasons, even when two kids seem to be on the same page about a pants-down game, it’s a grown-up’s job to redirect them: because games like this can easily be taken too far and one child can become confused or upset. And sometimes these kinds of games – when one child does something that makes another child uncomfortable – can have negative impacts on a person into adulthood as a person’s knowledge and understanding of sex and sexual behaviors evolves with a person as they grow from a child to an adolescent and into an adult. So, since there are other ways she can get these answers safely and without this risk, that’s why you’re asking her to follow these rules.

Following Up
It may be helpful to ask her some questions about what she’s still curious about, what she knows already, and what she’d like more information on. Perhaps these games are fueled by a desire to see what other people’s vulvas look like – and that can be satisfied with a book. And you’re right that these behaviors are absolutely developmentally appropriate; typically they also diminish and then stop when you’ve had a conversation (or two) with a child about these rules (and why). However, you may want to check-in with your daughter’s pediatrician if she continues to break this touching rule (or other rules), just to keep them in the loop on what’s going on.

Take care,
Helpline Staff


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Last edited on: November 19th, 2019