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Early touch holds key to healthy body awareness

Babies are born knowing little more than how to cry and suckle. Soon they discover that they have hands and feet, useful for sucking on, kicking, rolling over, crawling, and eventually -- with a little help from their caregivers -- striving for Olympic gold.

How do some parents help their young kids realize their physical potential? First, they cheerlead as their kids graduate from one behavior to the next. What else? They offer plenty of touch.

According to Sandra J. Weiss, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Community Health Systems at the University of California, San Francisco, "Close, responsive, physical interaction provides babies and young children with the stimulation they need to build a strong sense of physical self."

Weiss says certain types of touch -- "particularly those that are very stimulating, strong in intensity and involving areas with lots of nerve endings such as face, hands, and feet -- "promote a more sophisticated sense of body awareness."

Most parents provide this sort of touch when they play with their children. For example, Jenna Buffington, an Edmonds School District counselor and mother of 11/2 year-old Eli, says she counts on classic songs like "This Little Piggy," "The Hokey Pokey" and "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" to help Eli learn about his body. "When he sings and moves along with the songs, his pride and enthusiasm are obvious," she says.

Eli's father, Stephen, does his part by lifting his son high into the air for an exciting lesson in body awareness -- and gravity.

Curious Times for Tots

The first five years of life are a veritable circus of self-discovery. During this time, children not only test their physical limits, they learn their place in the scheme of things -- their comparative size, stature, beauty and strength. Just as they mirror their caregivers' physical behaviors, they mirror attitudes regarding their bodies. "Helping children learn about themselves and their bodies can be the sweetest and most personal of all parental teachings," say Laura Davis and Janis Keyser in their book, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. "It can also be one of the most challenging and confusing areas of parenting."

Here are some positive ways to teach young children about their bodies:

  • Encourage them to learn self-care: feeding, dressing, washing and grooming.
  • Express love and respect, physically. Snuggle, nuzzle and cuddle your child. Weiss also recommends massage, which she calls "a natural part of caregiving in many cultures."
  • Help children to identify physical feelings, such as hunger or fatigue, and to act on them.
  • Teach them about body functions and anatomy: sleep, elimination, body parts including body hair and pregnancy. (More on sexuality and reproduction, below.)
  • Encourage free, boisterous play. Set up a safe zone and watch kids' confidence grow. Gentle roughhousing with your kids provides an opportunity for touch and trust-building.
  • Respect children's curiosity. It's natural and healthy.
  • Be conscious of your attitudes. By knowing what kind of relationship you want your child to have with his or her body, you can help the child develop that relationship.

Stages of Body Awareness:

You can prepare for kids' explorations and questions by considering the following stages.

Newborns to 2- year-olds:

  • Explore everything, including their bodies. Babies and young children all touch their genitals.
  • Develop trust, empathy and the ability to recognize pleasure based on nurturing touch they receive from their primary caregivers.
  • Parents can express gender acceptance by providing babies with lots of affection. Experts also recommend using the correct names for body parts, no matter how amusing the alternatives.

2- to 3-year-olds:

  • Show more curiosity about their bodies and gender-awareness.
  • Imitate gender-specific behaviors.
  • Experience toilet training as a major milestone.
  • Tend to associate elimination with their genitals.
  • Praise during toilet training can promote children's self-esteem and healthy sexual attitudes.

Caregivers can respond constructively to genital play in a number of ways:

  • Ignore the behavior and wait until later to explain about "private activities."
  • Affirm the child's experience and introduce the concepts of modesty and privacy.
  • Redirect them by offering an alternate activity.
  • Punishment or shaming should be avoided, as it can result in long-term hang-ups. Now is a good time to introduce reproduction in animals and humans, in simple terms.

3- to 4-year-olds:

  • Express interest in where babies come from.
  • Explore other people's bodies. Playing doctor and pretending to be mommy or daddy are common, normal activities.
  • Show increased interest in the differences between adults' and children's bodies.
  • Understand the difference between public and private behavior.
  • Still show concern about toileting, and frequently use "potty words."

When you find your children playing doctor, you can acknowledge their curiosity and offer information about body parts. Importantly, you can advise your children that their body is theirs to protect, and that they should say "no" to any unwanted touching.

With children's growing sense of self-ownership comes an opportunity to initiate self-care, such as self-washing, grooming and teeth-brushing.

5- year-olds:

  • Broach new ideas about sex and show interest in the realities of reproduction.
  • Show increased need for privacy.
  • Use sexual or "obscene" language, often to test caregivers' limits.
  • Show more interest in gender.
  • May hesitate to ask questions.
  • By age 5, children may want more details about reproduction. Caregivers may choose to offer a more complete explanation at this point.

Developing physical self-awareness and self-respect are huge triumphs for children. Parents can share the glory when they see their positive attitudes passed on, sometimes for generations.


Originally published in the February, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.

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