Monday, June 16, 2008

Theology of the Body for Pre-Schoolers

Help! I have a 3.5 yr. old daughter asking me questions with which I am not equipped to deal.

Basically it all centers around modesty, or her lack thereof. My struggle with raising my children is that I am trying to strike a balance between 1) teaching them to embrace the beauty and function of the human body as God designed it and 2) imbuing them with an understanding of the virtue of modesty. I started by teaching a two year old the anatomically correct nouns for the human genitalia. Now, I am not sure if that was a great idea or not, but it seemed better than silly words like "my bee boo hurts" or whatever. This decision is now rearing its ugly head when she would like to discuss her little brother's penis loudly in public. OK, so what? - every mother who has had small children will understand this. But I confront this dichotomy in other areas with my daughter as well. She wants to wear a bikini. I know, it is cute on a little girl, but then it somehow seems inappropriate on a nine year old. The closer my daughter gets to becoming a sexualized being, the more important it will be that she understand the importance of comporting herself with modesty. So I guess I can't allow her to wear a bikini now and then reverse my decision in the future... but how do I explain why?

My second issue with her arises when she questions certain things she has seen in movies. OK, now here is the part where I throw my "supermom" status into jeopardy, brace yourselves... In Aladdin Jafar makes Jasmine wear a bikini when he has her become some sort of hypnotized love slave at the end of the movie, and (now here is the real doozy, yes, I did/do let her watch THIS) in Return of the Jedi Jabba the Hut has Princess Leia in a bikini and chained to him once she is captured. Well, my innocent little three-yr.-old has asked me, poignantly, about both of these displays of sexual objectification: "Mommy, why does Jabba the Hut make Princess Leia wear a bikini?"

So there you have it, how do I help my daughter understand that while our bodies are gifts from God, they should not always be on display for everyone?


Anonymous said...

I have three daughters (11, 8 and 6) and I allow them to wear bikinis for the simple reason is that it is far easier to use the bathroom in a wet bikini than struggling with a one piece. I understand the quest for modesty, but I think a two piece is far more comfortable and practical for little girls. We have an assorted collection of cover ups which they use if they are not in the pool.

Katherine said...

I won't wear one and I won't let my daughters wear one.
Mine aren't old enough yet where they have asked. But, I would try to explain that their bodies are very special and we need to treat them as special. There are some parts so special that God wants them hidden from most people and kept special. You can say that some cultures and some people believe differently but this is what we believe and how we live to respect our bodies and honor God. (This will prove an interesting talk when it comes as my 2 year old loves to run around naked, but fortunately that is only in the privacy of our home.)

Rita said...

how about a tankini? That way it is a two piece and it offers the coverage you desire for your little ones. I saw some cute sets online, some with board shorts and everyting.
When discussing modesty, you could tie it to sunscreen. Unprotected exposure to the sun has risks, some immediate (sunburn) and some delayed (skin cancer). Just as we protect our skin from the sun, we protect our dignity by acting with modesty. It protects our souls both now and in the future. I don't know how well this would go over with a 3 year old though.

Juris Mater said...

GREAT topic, AWOL. I'm curious if this comes up more with very young girls than very young boys?

Agreed, Katherine. No bikinis, no way. Why wear bra and underwear in public? I hate those things and resent that, as a teenager, I felt social pressure to wear then when I didn't feel comfortable with them. I expect that tankinis (with a full length-shirt that covers the belly) will be our solution when Bella outgrows her 3T one-piece. I LOVE the latest trend of a UV protectant full-length, short-sleeved shirt with bikini bottoms. Solves the UV, potty, and modesty issues, and can be purchased now at Old Navy for only $16.99!

On to modesty. AWOL, hilarious that you mentioned the Jasmine example. I was HORRIFIED, and I don't consider myself all that prudish. We don't do Aladdin or Jasmine anymore. Not only does Jafar force Jasmine to be his red-bikini clad sex slave, but she acts the part, twisting his mustache around, licking her lips and teeth and saying stuff like "Oh Jafar, you're so big and strong and...", letting this sheer cloth fall around her body as she saunters up to him, etc. No wonder I was so misguided about sexuality as a teenager... I watched Aladdin and the Little Mermaid (see Ariel in a wet bikini lying on top of Prince Eric, who she's never met, on the beach). Disney!

My solution (my oldest daughter Bella is 3, so I don't consider myself an expert) is:
First line of defense is to explain and enforce modesty. Then, explain about the sacredness and privateness of our bodies. I'd like it to be affirmative before negative, but this just wasn't possible because modesty has come up before she can really understand an abridged theology of the body (thanks largely to Disney). I told Bella that Jasmine and Ariel aren't my favorite princesses, because they're not modest, and she's picked up on this. We like the other princesses because they wear beautiful, modest dresses. Modesty is covering your stomach and your "private parts". We call them private parts ("boy priv" and "girl priv") in our house, probably because of my comfort level with talking about anatomy--low! Also, I feel more compelled to point out that they're private at this age, and that we need to protect them because they're special, as Katherine said. But I try first and foremost to be natural, not overbearing, about any of it. I think you can freak kids out either way--being too open about it makes them misunderstand privacy, but being too private makes them feel like perverts for being curious. Somewhere in between.

Look forward to hearing how the rest of you handle this... SUCH a crucial issue!

Juris Mater said...

Also, for older girls, I read this in some random Christian magazine a while back and kind of liked it (although my husband thinks it's goofy):
"Bugs that sting are attracted to bare skin.
Not the kind of guy you want to win."

Kat said...

Rita, I like the idea of a tankini, I'll have to remember that for baby Maria as she gets older!

Awol Mommy, I like the broader topic that you have raised - how do we talk about modesty with young children? We all struggle with this as parents, and I've gotten some great ideas from other moms!

Like you, we have also used all of the correct terminology with C, and it seems to be working pretty well. I have also really liked using the phrase "private parts" when talking about male and female anatomy as well, because it brings in the idea that certain body parts are meant to be private. So if C asks why we don't come out of the bathroom at someone else's house without our pants on, I say that it's because we keep our private parts private!

We have also made sure to tell C that the only people who can see or touch C's private parts are mommy, daddy, and the nurse or doctor (and other family members that might be taking care of him). C has taken to this idea, and he even reminds my husband and me when we go to the doctor that "It's okay if the nurse or doctor has to see your private parts, mommy/daddy, just not anyone else" :)

Right Said Red said...

Welcome AWOL Mommy! I've been off-line for a few days on vacation. You have a very observant little girl. God Bless her for picking up on these things at such a young age.

As for the bikini bathing suits. We don't do bikinis, and won't ever do bikinis in this house. Modesty is important, and I don't think bikinis are cute, even on little girls. I'd rather see them swim in just a swim diaper than have a bikini on!

I do have Gianna wear a 2-piece bathing suit (swimming shirt with swim shorts or swim bottoms). This solves the bathroom problem while maintaining modesty. And like someone else mentioned, they sell these suits at a very affordable price at Old Navy or Target (we bought ours at Target for $12.99). It has the double benefit of protecting their skin from the sun, something this red head is always very concerned about!

And I'm not a big fan of Jasmine or Ariel.

AR's & J's mama said...

I'm so glad you brought this topic up! I have a 2 year old girl, and 3 month old son. My daugther has begun to ask about his "private area" (that's what we call it). I am in the medical field, and I still have trouble calling everything by their anatomical names. It just doesn't seem quite right to hear my 2 year old saying "penis". Does anyone else feel this way? :) Is it ok to use other names (like private parts or private area) or how do you get over that insecurity? My husband wants to use anatomically correct terms. Is anyone else in this situation where you and your spouse feel differently about how to handle the names of their private parts? Thanks! a.

B-Mama said...

We have definitely confronted the "what to call the private part" problem in the past. My sister has used anatomically correct terms, while we've gone for the "wee wee"/"private" references. I think it's a toss up which to use, but depends on the comfort level of the parent. I, myself, feel very awkward saying the word "penis", so I couldn't imagine having to say it umpteen times a day in relation to the potty. Just a personal preference. With that said, I know we have used "penis" before, so hopefully someday it won't be so strange to them!

And with all this bathing suit discussion, you all are making me *really* grateful for little boys and the simplicity of swim trunks! However, we have been dealing with the "breast" issue with M, our oldest. He seems to be overly interested in how mommy is different... Anyone else encountered this issue? I have been trying to curtail his interest with simple answers such as "those are mommy's breasts and they are private"... Help!

Anonymous said...

Kind of tangential, but in reference to Kat's comment: our pediatrician, while examining our 3 yo's "private parts" asked him why it was ok. Our son said, "because you're a doctor." The ped said, "No, because your mommy is here and says its ok." I was impressed. I thought it was a great message to impart: that just because someone is in a position of authority (or says he is) doesn't mean what they do is automatically ok.

Anonymous said...

There is a natural, good, and normal curiosity in children. Don't discourage them, but answer in a way that shows God's glorious design of our healthy bodies. Mary Reed Newland has a very helpful, wise, and prudent chapter on this in How to Raise Good Catholic Children (reprint, Sophia Institute Press). She encourages mothers to be "calm and serene, pleasant and never outwardly disturbed." Good advice! She does believe in using proper terms. And I found her discussion of the "feminine bosom" wonderfully helpful: "Today's entertainment and fashion industries have successfully limited the definition of feminine charm to one qualification alone, a physical measurement--a far cry from what God intended. Again, life in the family where children are fed at their mother's breast offers the most natural, the most beautiful, most wholesome explanation--without any words at all. It's the fine hand of God showing once more: infinite wisdom in the matter of teaching about sex and life and reproduction....A child who has grown up secure in the knowledge of the divinely ordained purpose of the body will have a yardstick against which to measure the seemliness of her dress when she's a young woman (143-44).

B-Mama said...

Anon, I totally love the natural essence of your message above, but am also finding myself less-than-natural when dealing with questions, etc. I guess I am also a product of society and private parts discussion!

Nonetheless, I'm hoping that with further talk of male/female issues and with more children, I will become a little more comfortable and natural!

We are also getting ready to welcome baby #3, which should prompt some interesting discussion about Mommy parts when I'm breastfeeding the baby 24/7. I will have to learn to be comfortable...

k said...

So timely in our house. Our little guy has been talking more and more out loud about his penis and has also b-mama's son, has been super interested in my chest of is definitely a comfort thing and it is odd because it is the type of reaction I was expecting after he weaned, which didn't happen then but has been cropping up more and more recently.

We go with penis for him and "private area" for girls not even sure how that came up but that's what we ended up with. We have been having a lot of "Mama are you keeping your pwiwate awea pwiwate" which I just reply "uh-huh" and try to change the subject, because I like to deal with those issues head on:) I actually like b-mama's idea of telling him my breasts are private too and not to touch them, I think a lot of this has to do with several of our friends having little ones who are breast-feeding.

Anyway, lots of good ideas and thoughts here as usual. Glad I don't have any girls yet so I don't have to worry about this bathing suit issue, in general I go with Red in that I don't actually think bikinis are cute on anyone, and I happen to love one-pieces, preferably with some sort of ruffle, but I think tankinis or short-sleeve sun suits and shorts are a great option for us super sunburn prone folks.

Elizabeth M said...

I'm dealing with this now. Our 7-year-old daughter wants a "2-piece" bathing suit. We won't get her a bikini, but I have decided to get her a tankini too. I do think it will help with bathroom issues even at her age -- since it is easier to do herself -- and can have a different style for a change from the basic 1-piece tank.

I too struggle with terminology. Somehow we handled "penis" just fine with our son. But we've stuck with "private parts" with our daughter. My mom used "vagina" with my sister and I when we were young, but I was confused as I got older when I realized that that really doesn't mean the whole "private area."

Anonymous said...

I would be reluctant to tell a little one that Mama's breasts are "private." Breasts really aren't private in the same way. They are very much a part of a hug, are they not, and something our little ones often rest their heads upon. Also, they feed our children, so our little ones, even after they wean and when they see other children wean, retain a deep affection for the breasts, a lovely connection with them, even if they don't exactly remember nursing. In my experience, clearly for them Mama's bosom represents love and care and connection. There is no need to make that off-limits, other than reminding a child to "be gentle with Mama," or "please don't touch Mama" or "Give me a hug" and redirect their hands. This use of "private" can be confusing and misleading when there are other ways to redirect without cutting off a child or making him feel uncomfortable for expressing affection.

k said...

anon (last one)...I think that is a good point and the issue I am struggling with.

I just really don't want to man-handled (or toddler-handled) in public and since a lot of his close adult females have little ones who are breast-feeding I am worried that he will move onto them, he has already done some pats in that general area when they are hugging them (now these are pretty laid back mom's so it's not like they will be offended, it's just the concept).

But, some gentle hand redirection might work, he is a pretty determined little guy and usually we have a battle of wills over where his hand will rest.

Also he is obsessed with nipples, his, his father's, mine (which he usually only tries to poke through my shirts). Which is somehow more awkward then the whole breast issue.

So now you guys have all the things we are struggling with, he is truly into all things body right now. And again we are trying not to make any of it uncomfortable for him, while keeping appropriate boundaries.

Advice, comments?

Mary Alice said...

We use the tankinis, board shorts and rash shirts from Land's End, and my boys wear a rash shirt and shorts from there, and I am loving that it keeps them safer from the sun.

We have watched Aladin with the kids and that whole part where she is enslaved is super creepy, the bikini, and then when she starts fake turning it on to trick him.

Also, since we are sort of on the disney princess subject, at the recommendation of a previous reader I got out my grandma's Hans Christian Anderson anthology and read the kids the REAL little Mermaid. It was amazing! The language and story are so rich, the ending is even better than I remembered (she doesn't just die and turn into foam, which was the sad ending of the picture book I had as a child). It took several sittings to read it, but the olders (5 and 6) were hanging on every word.

By the way, maybe Aladdin solves your bikini problem, and starts a good modesty conversation, if you can explain that for a man to chain up a woman and make her appear in her underwear is mean and evil.

Funny that in a way we are more disturbed by the fact that she is scantily clad then the fact that she is enslaved...both are horrible forms of objectification from which the man who truly loves her fights to free her.

Rachel said...

Oh my! Good points all of you! Definitely something to think about as I hope to have daughters in the future. Does this mean that bikinis should be off-limits for Mom as well?

texas mommy said...

So glad to hear these thoughts. We use rash guards and trunks with the boys to protect their Polish skin. If I had a blondie girl in TX, too, she'll probably be in a wet suit to keep her from getting burned. We haven't had much of an issue with this with two young boys, but Dash was trying to figure out this weekend how the new baby was going to come out of Mommy's tummy.

Kat--C had to have asked this question, too. What did you tell him? M asking this? Ideas?

Juris Mater said...

Bella solved the mystery of how Angelina came out of my tummy herself. I told her the baby came out, and she concluded that the baby came out through a tube just like Dr. Baker got the puzzle piece out of Curious George's tummy through a tube. Works for me : ) Thank goodness for these Curious George books on tape.

Anonymous said...

when my sister's last little guy was born her 4 yr. old girl asked "how is the baby going to come out" She said "God gave women a special hole where the baby comes out." Thankfully that satisfied the curiosity and she didn't have to go further.

Mary Alice said...

When I was about 8 monhts pregnant, I let my kids watch a woman giving birth on the National Geographic special In the Womb. I just thought they might as well know what is going on there. Now, my girls understand that they have various holes with various purposes, one for poop, one for pee, one for babies. Before this, they had decided the baby came out of your butt, so I just thought I would get real with it. A picture was worth about a million words.

Sorry this was crass, I don't really have better vocabulary for this at the moment, which I guess is why it was better coming from the australian narrator.

B-Mama said...

Texas Mommy, no new questions on how the baby is going to come out from M, but I will get ready. I think I might say something like, "God gave mommies a place for the baby to come out by her bottom" or something like that. Great suggestions above!

He is pretty cute, though, in talking about the baby, "Percy", in his tummy.

janine said...

I happened upon this blog via a link from another page. I found your comments on this interesting since I struggled with similar issues 20+ years ago when I raised my son. I think you have it so much more difficult in these days when even one piece suits are high cut and clothing for girls tries to turn them into teens. We lived Singapore as recent as 3 years ago and there the American mothers put their children into suits that went down to elbows and knees to protect from the equatorial sun. The children had fun and were comfortable while being modest. As for images in movies bringing up questions: I considered everything a learning opportunity and a chance to instill my ideas of what was appropriate. Just keep your comments short and simple - then perhaps remove that dvd from your library.