By: Jennifer Gow
In the early days of motherhood, my days were often focused on the here and now, putting one foot in front of the other to keep up with my children, and with the whirlwind of family life. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself sitting in a room listening to a sexual health educator tell me how important it was for me to start speaking to my preschool child about their sexual health. The parent education night at my elder daughter’s preschool, with a presentation by Saleema Noon, was a breath of fresh air.
As I remember my childhood, my education in this area came as much from gossip in the playground as it did from adults in the classroom or at home. It certainly wasn’t a topic of conversation for the dinner table. Not only was rather little said on the topic, but when it was brought up, slang words would often replace proper terms. Other than in biology classes or in a medical context, I have no memory as a child of an adult using scientific terms for private body parts. As a result, I know a litany of slang terms verging from innocuous and funny to rude and downright unrepeatable. But as a mother, I realised words like ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ didn’t easily slip off my tongue when speaking to my children. To some this may sound ridiculous, and to others all too familiar! We all come from different backgrounds but many of us have been raised in a society where sexual health is not openly talked about.
But what is the big deal? Why is it so important to use proper names for our body parts? Why do we need to talk to our children about their sexual health when they are so young? And how does this apply to our deaf and hard of hearing children?
I’ve seen “Saleema Noon Sexual Health Educators” present several times now, as my children have moved from preschool into school, and I have come to appreciate that there are three important reasons to talk to young children about their sexual health. All of them centre around protection and prevention.
Normalize the conversation. Young children haven’t yet been conditioned to know that sexual health can be a taboo subject in our society, and will name the penis as readily as the knee! They love to be scientists, exploring the world around them, so they tend to be very receptive to being taught ‘body science’. By making the conversation matter-of-fact and normal at an early age, we can lessen the extent and length of the “grossed-out” phase. This is a stage that many kids go through in their middle elementary years due largely to societal and peer pressure.
Become our children’s number one information source. If we don’t teach them, someone else will, and that person may not be a reliable source. Today’s media-soaked world is very different to the environment we grew up in, and our children are exposed to pressures that we were not. Media content is more sexualised and far easier for children to access with computers, smartphones, and tablets. We shouldn’t rely on schools or others to teach our kids how to discern fact from fiction. Instead, we should be their reliable go-to source.
Protect our children. Studies around the world show that children who are educated about healthy bodies and healthy sexuality are better protected from child sexual abuse. Sexual offenders seek out vulnerable individuals. They recognise that a child who uses scientific vocabulary for body parts and has ownership of their own body has been taught these things. From this, they also know that the child will have been taught to report any exploitative situation. By introducing the concept of sexual consent, we empower our children and help to protect them. It’s especially important for parents of children with additional needs to understand this. Since these children tend to spend more time with other adults in positions of trust, and may not have the same education around sexual health as their peers, they can be at increased risk from sexual abuse.
With this in mind, Saleema Noon recommends that preschoolers know the following important aspects of sexual health *:
- Scientific words related to sexual health. This means using the same anatomical language a doctor would use with your child so they won’t be intimidated in a medical setting (e.g., penis, testicles, vulva, vagina, stool). We can help our deaf and hard of hearing children to identify parts of the body at their language level. For those who have not yet developed signed or spoken language, we can model this language through their language abilities (e.g., head shaking, Picture Exchange Communication System/picture symbols, iPad/Alternative Communication Devices).
- They have ownership of their own bodies. Children should be aware that they have three private body parts (mouth, breast and genitals, which covers the area from the belly button down and around to the bottom of the back, including the buttocks). It is against the law for anyone to touch their body without permission. They need to report any violation of this to an adult they trust, and know that they will not get in trouble when they do. If the first person doesn’t believe them, or doesn’t do anything about it, then they need to know to report again to someone else, as many times as needed until someone listens. While parents may worry about talking to their children about such a serious topic, kids tend to learn this in a matter-of-fact way in much the same way they learn a fire drill. Again, for our deaf and hard of hearing children, this dialogue can start at the language level of the child; for example, developing language to describe how they are feeling (e.g., scared, hurt). For deaf and hard of hearing children who have additional needs and work with care teams, goals around safety should be discussed with the team, and safety goals included in Individual Family Service Plans or Individual Education Plans (e.g., explaining appropriate & inappropriate touch; public versus private).
*The full guidelines around what to teach our children and when can be found on Saleema Noon’s website
While preschool and kindergarten programs may adopt an approach to sexual health education that is similar to Saleema Noon’s recommendations, it remains important that we, as parents, are confident in talking to our children about this topic right from day one. Honest information from their own family empowers them to handle information from peers, schools, or other sources like the media. It gives them the tools to interpret the information and know they have a trustworthy source in you to explore topics as they see fit. If we start today with our young deaf and heard of hearing children, we’ll be ready to help them fill in any gaps that might appear from missed incidental learning as they grow.
As for me, I’ve got over my prudishness and it has become almost easy for me to use the proper terms for all body parts. I’m not quite the societal rebel but I am raising children who are educated about their bodies and have strong personal boundaries.
Hands & Voices has developed the O.U.R. Children’s Safety Project dedicated to the safety and security of our deaf/hard of hearing children. One of the accomplishments of this project is partnering with ChildHelp.org and the creation of a toll-free number specifically offering support to children who are deaf/hard of hearing: 1-800-222-4453 hotline number (USA & Canada) can be called anonymously by anyone who needs information/support from counsellors about a particular situation (e.g., a parent feeling overwhelmed/frustrated, help with your child’s behaviours, developmental stages/tantrums, fair discipline, questions about needing to report abuse but unsure of ramifications).