A Mighty Girl's top picks of books for young children about their bodies, body privacy, appropriate touch, and more.
Since the moment someone said, “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy”, sex has been part of your child’s life. And while there has been at least one highly publicized (and debated) effort to raise a baby without gender, the truth is that, sooner or later, every child will notice how their body is the same, or different, from other bodies. But while conversations about bodies and sex can be awkward for parents, they’re important even for a preschooler or elementary aged child.
There are many reasons why you should start talking to kids about sex and bodies in age-appropriate ways. One is to take the mystery away from genitalia: if you cheerfully label “ear”, “arm”, and “knee” but refer vaguely to “private parts” or use euphemisms, children may think that there is something wrong, dangerous, or scary about this part of their bodies. Another is to give your child clear language for health issues: if your child says she is “itchy down there” after a summer day trip, a care provider may be looking for poison ivy and not a yeast infection from a wet bathing suit.
Equally importantly is preparing your child to talk about puberty (which we discuss in the second part of this blog, Talking with Tweens and Teens about their Bodies) “Puberty!?” I can hear you thinking. “She’s only 5!” And yet approximately 25% of girls experience breast budding, the first stage of puberty, at age 8 or 9 — third grade — and her first period will generally follow two to three years after the appearance of breast buds. If the girl in your life is an early bloomer, she may experience these changes before you are expecting them. But if you have been open and forthcoming with information about her body in the past, she will know that she can approach you with her questions.
“Where Do Babies Come From?”
It’s usually during the preschool years that parents first hear this question from their kids. While many parents agonize over how to answer — how much information is too much, how to answer in an age-appropriate way, and so on — having some good resources to read with your child can help.
While Nellie and Gus enjoy a trip to the beach, they have some questions about why their bodies look the way they do — and what other peoples' bodies look like. This book focuses on explaining reproductive anatomy, alongside other body parts, and explaining that these differences are not only normal, but just a part of a much more important whole: the person! With illustrations that capture a diverse community and simple, clear language that's accessible to young preschoolers, this book is a great introduction to talking about bodies.
Of course, after the questions about bodies comes the question about where bodies come from! In the next book in the series, Nellie and Gus' mom is pregnant, and the kids are wondering what the baby is doing inside the uterus and what will happen when it's time for their new sibling to be born. This volume focuses on pregnancy and birth, only discusses conception briefly, in the context of cells from mother and father joining to start the new baby. It's the perfect volume to talk about what to expect with soon-to-be big sisters and brothers.
Described by its author as “a modern picture book about where babies come that fits for every kind of family and every kind of kid,” this book removes languages that presume gender and family status of the parent or parents, allowing parents to tailor their talk to their child's unique family. It provides a gentle introduction for young children to the concepts of conception, pregnancy, and birth, with inclusive enough language to incorporate heterosexual and homosexual couples, single parents, adoption, fertility treatments or surrogacy, and even either vaginal or cesarean birth. It's the perfect way for parents to celebrate diverse family and childbirth stories.
For parents that want to talk about the differences between boys and girls, how babies are made and born, and the basics of privacy, but avoid an in depth discussion of intercourse, this book is the perfect option. The cartoony illustrations show girls and boys at different stages of development from baby to young adult, as well as diagrams of internal organs. Saltz still discusses conception in terms of sperm joining egg, but leaves it up to parents to decide how and whether to explain the mechanics, making it perfect for younger preschoolers or for parents who want to save a discussion of sex for when their children are older.
One of the most popular and detailed books about bodies, pregnancy, and families for preschoolers, It's NOT The Stork follows a curious bird and bee friend as they learn about babies, bodies, and love from a diverse group of people of all ages, races, and body shapes. This book covers a wide range of topics, including growth in the womb, different kinds of families, and okay and not okay touches; it also provides a basic description of intercourse. The section-based format at accessible presentation make it perfect shorter, more detailed discussions about individual topics.
The next in Harris and Emberley's popular series, this book covers similar topics to It's NOT The Stork, but is targeted to slightly older kids. The same bird and bee friends learn even more detail about sex, reproduction and love, covering topics like genetics, adoption, sexual orientation, HIV, and sexual abuse in a sensitive but informative way. It’s So Amazing! also introduces how bodies change during puberty, making it an excellent resource for parents of early bloomers.
Understanding Touch And Body Privacy
You can’t talk about kids and sex without confronting the challenge of talking about sexual abuse. Statistics vary, but it’s generally accepted that somewhere around 1 in 4 girls experience some form of sexually abusive contact before the age of 18. Helping children understand what touch is okay and what touch is not is critical to helping protect them — and to encourage them to seek help if they experience abuse.
Talking about bodily autonomy and teaching kids what to do if someone touches them inappropriately can be empowering — there's confidence and courage to be found in knowing they control their own body! This book teaches body safety skills, from understanding and knowing how to act on feeling uncomfortable with someone's behavior, to knowing your body — including private parts — by proper anatomical names, to building a support network you can count on when you need to talk. Throughout the book, kids are encouraged to be assertive about what they need and to demand the respectful relationships they deserve, both as children and later as teens and adults.
Because young preschool kids are so used to touch as part of their day-to-day routines of dressing and hygiene, it is important to introduce the idea that many touches are optional and can be declined. This book provides a good introduction to a child’s control of their body: that they can choose to allow or not allow touching like hugs and kisses, even from someone they care about. Unlike some other books, this one does mention issues like help toileting and bathing, as well as the possible need for medical personnel to touch areas that would otherwise be off limits.
Discussions about touch aren't just about sexual abuse; they're also about respecting other people and their boundaries. Sanders uses this general idea to address age-specific examples, such as roughhousing play like wrestling or choosing whether or not to give someone a kiss, and encourages kids to exercise their voice when they don't want a touch — and tell people they trust when they're uncomfortable. Discussion questions at the end helps parents talk further with their kids about these issues.
Once kids understand the general idea of bodily autonomy, parents can open the discussion about inappropriate sexual touch. This book provides a starting point for parents to talk about recognizing and preventing sexual abuse, including a child-friendly discussion of ploys used by molesters. It also empowers children to tell another adult if someone has touched them in an abusive way. Parents may want to clarify some of the concepts in this book — for example, telling children who still require help for hygiene that touching is necessary for cleaning — but it provides a good, simple introduction to the concept of sexual abuse.
Discussing touch can have additional challenges when a child has special needs, and issues like self-touching in public or respecting personal space may require more explicit explanation. This book explores all the different types of touch, including accidental touch, deliberate touch, appropriate touch, and inappropriate touch. It also tackles what a child should do if they feel they were touched inappropriately. While this book was written for children with special needs, these concepts are not easy for any child, making this book valuable to many families.
8-year-old Julie is uncomfortable with some kinds of touches, so it's time for a lesson about bodies and privacy! Through a conversation with her mother, Julie learns about her power to say "no" and what to do when her refusal isn't respected. Since this book is intended for an older audience, it also introduces more details about abuse, including a mention that even friends and family members should have no reason to touch, examine, or photograph the genitals of an older child. It also introduces "grey areas" of touch such as tickling, which may start out feeling good, emphasizing that an activity must always stop when someone says no.
“I'm Not Ready For This...”
For parents who want to have these discussions but feel awkward and uncertain, here is one great resource — and several useful tips — to help you have this very important conversation.
From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children — From Infancy To Middle School
From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children — From Infancy To Middle School
If you're wondering how to prevent these conversations from being awkward, or how you can discuss your own family's values around sexuality while still providing important facts, this is the perfect book to get you started. Haffner advocates a continuous conversation about sexual matters, at age-appropriate levels, from birth onward. While she, like most child sexuality educators, recommends using accurate terminology (penis and vulva, for example), she acknowledges that families may have different values about sex, love, and behavior Each chapter, which is divided by age, contains value exercises to help you decide what you want to teach your child. More importantly, she provides lots of help for parents to become more comfortable with conversations about bodies, sex, and gender.
A step-by-step guide for parents and carers on how to protect children from sexual abuse through personal Body Safety Education. This short guide contains simple, practical and age-appropriate ideas, as well as important information on how abusers groom. Body Safety knowledge empowers children. It goes a long way in keeping them safe from sexual abuse, and ensuring they grow up as assertive and confidence teenagers and adults. You can help stop child abuse by teaching social and physical boundaries to kids and that some parts are not for sharing. A child needs be able to proclaim loudly and with conviction that, 'My body belongs to me', 'I am the boss of my body' and that 'From my head to my toes, I say what goes'.
Kids are increasingly immersed in highly sexualized content: from marketing and advertising to video games to social media — and, as such, are exposed to a broad and often distorted depiction of what is acceptable in sexuality and relationships. In this new parenting release, Cindy Pierce, a sex educator and comic storyteller, show parents how they can talk about sexuality, pornography, and relationships with kids. Beginning with younger child, and expanding the discussion during the tween and teen years, allows parents to develop comfort with the topic — and to establish themselves as reliable, accessible sources of information when kids (accidentally or on purpose) see material that they find upsetting or confusing. The overall tone is one of optimism and confidence: parents can discuss these issues with their children, and those discussions can — and do — make a difference.
Tips for Parents on Body Talk
- When your child asks you a sex or body question, clarify exactly what the child wants to know. “Where did I come from?” might be about geography rather than pregnancy!
- Keep your answers simple; your child will ask if they want more detail. For example, if a four-year-old finds a condom and ask what it is, the answer “It’s a condom” will satisfy many children. If they follow it up with, “What’s it for?” you can elaborate slightly: “We don’t want any more babies right now; condoms help us do that.” You don’t have to give explicit detail unless you want to have a longer discussion.
- Decide what the rules for touch are in your family. Does your child have to hug Uncle Bob or Grandma, even if she doesn’t want to? Does she get to decide who helps her in the bath or with toileting? How do people in your family say, “I don’t want to be touched right now” to one another in a caring way?
- If you think your child has been abused, you can reference this page from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network which will help you learn more about signs and symptoms of sexual abuse and where to get help.
- Let your child know that you are approachable; answer their questions honestly. They deserve to get reliable, accurate information. And you will feel good to know that they are getting that information from you.
It won’t be long before you look across the table and realize that your child is looking less and less like a child — and that you’d better start pulling out puberty resources. Fortunately, by laying a solid foundation with resources like these, you’ll have given your daughter a great head start at understanding her body.
Additional recommended Resources
- For a diverse assortment of guides on all aspects of growing up, including ones addressing issues related to both physical and social development, visit our Guides for Girls section.
- For more resources to help girls of all ages understand their bodies, visit our Human Development & Puberty section.
- To help encourage a positive body image in girls, visit our blog Celebrating Every Body: 20 Body Image Positive Books for Mighty Girls.
- For science toys and kits designed to teach children about how the human body works, visit our Human Body toys section.