How I Talk to My Daughter About Privacy (Plus, Expert Tips)

The other day, my 6-year-old daughter and I had the usual morning argument about getting dressed, and I ended up losing the war on leggings. Whatever, I decided. It wasn’t worth my sanity. We got to the playground and instantly she began climbing and hanging upside down on the monkey bars and flashing her princess undies to the entire world. At school, the girls are required to wear shorts/leggings under their skirts presumably, in part, for this very reason, and I told her in a stern voice not to flip upside down (a futile request, of course). It wasn’t until a random mother came up and whispered, “Your daughter should be wearing something under that skirt. There are a lot of pervs around here, and you don’t want them to get a good look,” that I suddenly felt weird. As a rule, I despise nosy parents who give their two-cents on the playground—who is she to tell me how to raise my own kid? But then I started to second-guess myself. I mean, did she know for a fact that the 20-something guys loitering on the wobble-bridge were pedos? Was she saving my daughter from being molested? We stayed at the playground for another 10 minutes or so—pervs be damned—but on the walk back to the subway, I couldn’t help feeling morally obligated to talk to my daughter about it.

“Do you know why I always ask you to wear shorts under your skirt?”

“Because we have to at school,” she said.

“Okay, but do you know why?”

She shrugged. “For privacy?”

“Yeah, but do you know what privacy actually is?”

This time, when she shrugged, I could tell she was bored and didn’t really know (or care) what I was getting at. And to be honest, I wasn’t really sure how to phrase it. Discussing privacy is one of those topics I’ve dreaded for years because, much like the “stranger danger” talk, I don’t want it to result in cagey paranoia and fear of kidnappers lurking around every corner.  It occurred to me that when I am talking to my kids about their bodies, I usually try to keep things simple: “It’s your vagina, and nobody should be able to touch it but you … and even then, there’s a time and a place for it.”

Privacy is such a vague word, though, and as a result, I feel like I often probably make her more confused instead of less. How do you explain the need for undergarments without basically saying creepy dudes get off on seeing little girls’ panties? On that subway ride home, I tried to talk to my daughter about respect and consent (who’s allowed to touch you, and where), and about permission (both giving and receiving). After that, I asked her about five times if she understood what I meant. She rolled her eyes, nodded, and then asked for a snack.

So, did I get through to her? Who knows. I’ve since brought it up a few times, here and there, figuring that a little repetition might help get the point across. She groans almost every time I tell her how important it is to respect her body and her friends’ bodies. She rolls her eyes when I reiterate that her body belongs to her, and that everyone (even mom and dad) need permission to touch her body. I sound like a broken record, and I think we both find that annoying, but it’s important, and I’m going to keep trying, and try to let her know that I’m always here for her, if and when she wants to discuss any of it.

The privacy conversation is a very layered, very gray area, and thank goodness there are experts. I spoke to two – Cory Silverberg, sex educator and author of Sex Is A Funny Word, and Ellen Friedrichs, a health educator, writer and mom of three kids based in Brooklyn. Here are some awesome tips from both of them:

1. Discuss it with your kids as early as possible. “As soon as they can comprehend speech,” says Silverberg. And break it down by talking about the things we do alone (bathe, touch private parts) versus with others (hugging/kissing with consent), and why we wear clothes or knock on the bathroom door before entering.

2. Try to balance your adult fears with commonsense. “We can know there are scary and dangerous people in the world and work behind the scenes to keep our kids safe,” says Friedrichs. In other words, don’t freak your kids out by telling them frightening stories from the news.

3. Have conversations about respect. Friedrichs suggests broaching the topic with things like, “Every family has different rules about touching, or about bathrooms. It’s important to ask people before you touch them. Even if you just want to hold their hand or give them a hug. And people should ask you, too.”

4. Preach the bathing suit rule. “Explain to kids that no one, not older kids, not babysitters, teachers, or nice relatives, should touch them anywhere their bathing suit covers and if anyone does they should let you know,” says Friedrichs, adding that if they are touched in a bad way, they should let you know. Silverberg adds that it can be very complicated when we tell kids to “say no” if they’re being touched, when in reality it’s not always safe to say no. However, let your child know he should tell mom or dad if/when he can.

5. Don’t let genitals be a taboo subject. “It is also really important to teach young children the proper terminology so that they have words to describe something if it happens,” says Friedrichs.

6. Allow them to touch themselves. Silverberg explains that some kids really love to touch themselves, and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, as long as it’s in private (like at home in the bath).

7. Let kids learn on their own, too. “We want them to be taking calculated risks,” says Silverberg. As adults, we have certain expectations about privacy but kids need to figure some of it out on their own.

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