Body Safety: How to Explain Private vs. Public to Kids

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
February 23, 2024

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

When Jill was a child, she was curious about her body. She would ask her parents questions like, “Why don’t I have the same private parts as my brothers?” She could tell her parents were really uncomfortable with her questions, so she stopped asking them…

When she touched her private parts in the bath, her parents would slap her hand and call her a “bad girl.” So she stopped. 

When she learned the word “vagina” on the school bus and said it at home, her parents washed her mouth out with soap. 

When she peeked over at her Aunt while she was getting her bathing suit on, she was punished for being “naughty.” 

Jill wondered if there was something wrong with her. Was she a bad girl for being curious about private parts?

As an adult, Jill still struggles with these thoughts and feelings of shame. So, when her own daughter expressed curiosity about private parts, she didn’t know how to respond. She felt stuck; part of her wondered how any of these behaviours could be “dirty” or “wrong” when her daughter was so young and innocent. At the same time, another part of her felt ashamed and afraid of her daughter behaving inappropriately. Jill didn’t want to raise a “bad girl,” but she also felt like her daughter’s behaviour made sense. Being caught between these two parts of herself made parenting in these moments really challenging.  

Many parents feel uncertain about how to navigate a child’s curiosity about private parts. 

This blog aims to help parents like Jill foster healthy curiosity and set age-appropriate boundaries around exploring our bodies and private parts in safe, educational ways. You’ll learn exactly how to explain private vs. public to kids, what language to use, when to start these talks, and how to make it an ongoing conversation. Most importantly, we’ll cover how to shape your child’s curiosity and exploration into positive learning experiences that nurture their natural development.

Understanding Childhood Curiosity of Private Parts  

The first thing parents like Jill need to know: it’s natural and expected for young children to be curious about their bodies, including their private parts. This curiosity can start as early as age 2. You may notice that toddlers touch their genitals as they start to become more aware of their bodies. When children are preschool-aged, they become more aware of their bodies and gender differences. This can increase their curiosity and provoke them to explore different people’s bodies. 

Some common (and normal!) behaviours you can anticipate during early childhood include: 

  • Touching/rubbing their genitals.
  • Attempting to touch the genitals of peers, siblings or parents.
  • Peeking at others’ private parts.
  • Asking questions about private body parts and bodily functions.
  • Playing “doctor” or “house” to explore curiosity about other children’s private parts.

It’s okay to let your child explore their body because touch is a powerful way for a child to become more aware of their body. Bodily awareness is an important part of healthy sexual development. This does not mean a child is exploring their body for sexual purposes – this means a child is gaining a deeper understanding of what their body feels like, looks like and needs. When a child has this bodily awareness, along with knowing the correct names for body parts, it promotes bodily autonomy. Bodily autonomy is the feeling of “inchargeness” over their bodies, and it’s a powerful protective factor against abuse. A child who is aware of their body, knows the correct names for body parts and believes they are in charge of their body, is more confident and articulate when determining what kind of physical touch they consent to

While curiosity and exploration of private parts are developmentally normal, certain behaviours warrant concern and professional consultation. If a child’s curiosity and exploration of private parts is excessive, persistent or causing harm to themselves or others, seek out support from a pediatrician or mental health professional. 

Related Post: Why Children Need to Know Correct Names for Body Parts

Explaining Private vs. Public Spaces, Behaviours and Body Parts

We want to teach kids that certain behaviours with our private parts are appropriate in specific spaces. Start doing this by teaching your child the difference between private and public as it relates to spaces, behaviours and body parts. This conversation will sound different depending on your child’s age, but the message should be the same. 

The Difference Between Private and Public for Children
Private Spaces
– Areas where people can expect privacy, such as your home, bathroom, or bedroom. 
– These spaces are where it is safe to touch and explore your private parts. 
Public Spaces
– Common areas in a home where people gather, such as the living room or kitchen. 
– Areas that anyone can access, like a park, store, or sidewalk. 
It is not safe to expose or touch your private parts in these spaces. 
Private Parts
– Refer specifically to the mouth, genitals and buttocks area of the body.
– Private parts, not including the mouth, are kept private/covered and are not shown to others without our consent. 
Public Parts
– Body parts that don’t need to be covered in public spaces, such as your hands, arms, legs, and feet. 
– These parts are not to be used to hurt others (hitting, pushing, kicking).These parts require consent before being touched.

Here are some example scripts parents can use to explain private versus public to their children:

“Our private parts are the parts of our body that are covered by our bathing suit. Those stay private, just for you. We keep them covered in public spaces, like the grocery store, school and the living room. 

“The bathroom and your bedroom are private spaces where you can safely explore your private parts.”

Related Post: A Guide to Helping Kids Respond to Unwanted Touch

Teach Your Child Body Safety and Consent!

Child Sleeping

Fostering Healthy Exploration 

As caregivers, it’s important to foster our children’s natural curiosity in a healthy, safe way so they develop bodily awareness. When children are aware of their bodies, they are more aware of their bodily needs. It’s also an important part of bodily autonomy – children who know their bodies feel more in charge of their bodies, which can boost their confidence and esteem. Here are a few ways to get started: 

1. Use anatomically correct names for private parts. This will promote the development of a healthy, shame-free relationship with their body. 

2. Set guidelines around when and where exploration can happen. Allow your child privacy to explore their body when they are alone in a private space. Provide gentle redirection if they start touching private parts in public spaces. 

3. Model consent and boundaries with your own body. For example, explain that you want privacy when using the bathroom and changing. Your child is learning by watching you, so show them how to respect physical boundaries.

4. Avoid judgmental tones or shame when addressing behaviour. For example, if your child is touching their private parts in a public space, calmly explain in a simple and straightforward manner. “Hey, sweety. This is a public space – if you want to touch your private parts, you can go to the bathroom or your bedroom.” You can also offer an opportunity for them to share any feelings they might have had about the interaction. “How did it feel for you when mommy asked you not to touch your private parts at the dinner table?”

Ongoing Communication About Private Parts 

Differentiating between private and public spaces, behaviours, and body parts isn’t a one-time conversation. Teaching and communicating to children safe and healthy ways to know and explore our bodies is an ongoing process. 

The conversation can start as early as infancy, where you simply name their body parts using anatomically correct names. This might sound like: “Mommy is going to wipe your penis and your bum before I put on a clean diaper.”

As your child grows and develops, the conversations might sound different. For example, you might tell a preschooler to wash their own privates during bath time to help them feel autonomy over their body. 

There are also opportunities to communicate and teach a child when you notice their curiosity. For example, Jill noticed her daughter was looking at her baby brother’s private parts during his diaper change. This is the first time her daughter has even seen a boy’s private parts, so it makes sense that they are curious. Jill can use this as a learning opportunity. She can start by validating her child’s curiosity and asking open-ended questions to keep the conversation going: 

“I noticed you were looking at your baby brother’s private parts when I was changing his diapers. Did you have any questions?”

It’s important to answer questions as honestly as possible while keeping the answers age-appropriate. Questions are also an opportunity to teach kids more about privacy. 

“Your baby brother might touch his penis because he’s curious about his body – just like when he touches his toes and his feet. It helps him learn about his body. When he gets older, mommy will teach him to do this in private spaces, like the bathroom or his bedroom.”

It can help to share personal stories in order to establish trust and build connection with your children when covering tricky topics like this. 

“When I was your age, my sister and I would turn around when we were changing in our shared bedroom. This made our space private for each other.”

When you notice your child is touching their private parts, see this as a teaching opportunity instead of a reason to scold, punish or embarrass the child to teach a lesson. 

“I noticed you were touching your vulva under your bathing suit. I know sometimes you get itchy – when that happens, you can itch over your bathing suit or move to a private space, like the bathroom. If you touch your private parts with your hands, you can scrub them with soap and water, just like we would after using the potty!”

“I can see that you’re touching your private parts because they’re not in a comfortable position. Why don’t we pause the game so you can go to the bathroom and adjust them so you’re more comfortable? After you wash your hands, you can come back, and we can keep picking up where we left off.”

As your child ages, build on these early talks with more specifics on privacy, bodily autonomy, puberty, relationships and more. Continue to provide a judgment-free space for your child to share their experiences, perspectives and questions. When we speak about our bodies openly, without shame, it encourages our kids to come to us and signals to them that we are a trusted and safe source of information.

Related Post: 4 Body Safety Tools to Protect Your Toddler and Preschooler

Touching Private Parts in Public Spaces

If you notice your child is persistently touching their private parts in public spaces, even after you’ve taught them about private spaces, behaviours and body parts, it can help to get curious about other contributing factors. Many parents are fearful in these moments because they assume their child is being naughty or bad. But this truly isn’t the case. Your child’s behaviour is communication, and they’re often using these behaviours to communicate a need. 

  • Do they need medical attention? 
  • Do they need tools for emotional regulation? 
  • Do they need more connection time with you? 

Children may be touching their genitals to itch a rash, self-soothe, or get a big reaction from a caregiver. Getting to the root of their behaviour can help you know how to respond.

By starting age-appropriate conversations early, answering questions honestly, responding without shame and modelling respect for privacy and consent, parents can help positively shape their child’s lifelong relationship with their body.  

Most importantly, we want our children to grow up without shame or misinformation about their private parts. With empathy and understanding, parents can nurture healthy attitudes.

We encourage all parents to reflect on their own experiences and aim to break cycles of silence or negativity surrounding private parts. Although the conversations may feel uncomfortable at first, creating an atmosphere of trust and openness will allow your child to come to you as issues arise. You’ve got this!

To help you navigate conversions about public versus private and body safety with your children, we’ve created a fun-filled printable, The Body Safety Toolkit!

Through colouring worksheets, games and fun activities, the toolkit will help your child: 

  • Learn the correct names for body parts.
  • Understand public and private spaces and body parts.
  • Say “NO” when needed.
  • Identify their personal team of safe people.
  • Understand the difference between Secrets and Surprises.

Buy The Body Safety Toolkit

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    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.