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What's an appropriate adult response to kids showing off their genitals? How can we empower them in the decisions about their bodies? How can we avoid sexually shaming them?

There is no one answer to all of these questions. My suggestions are really built around the conversation being intentional, kind, and without doing harm. If you have ideas about how to address cultural modesty with little ones please share them in the comments.

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Dr: Doe:

I received this message on Twitter and would like to respond to it. It says:

"Hey Dr Doe, 

My six-year old niece was caught showing off her bits and pieces to her male cousin and his friends, and it upset quite a few adults. What's the best way to talk to her about it without freaking her out about her own body? She understands the correct names for everything."

First, in case you, the audience, aren't as informed as this six year old niece: vulva, labia, labia, mons, hood, clitoral glans, meatus, vagina, anus; penis, scrotum, testicles, anus. Different people call these parts by different names, I'm going to refer to them as genitals so as not to assume anyone's anatomy based on their gender.

-- Intro Cut Scene --

Ok, six-year-old, showing genitals, which she knows the names of, to family and friends. Adults are upset because they caught her doing this. What now?


Part one:

Let's all stop using the word "caught" when referring to a sexual behavior that's unintentionally witnessed. Even if you disapprove of it, that doesn't mean they've committed some sort of crime. I don't want to think about your niece's actions as something to "catch" or "trap" I want to focus on her thoughts and feelings about her experience.

Part two: six-year-olds.

According to PBS's child development tracker, "six-year-olds are confident and delight in showing off their talents." For an empowered girl who knows what she has, her behavior is not surprising.The cousin and the cousin's friends might not have the body knowledge she does, so perhaps she's educating them. The development tracker also says "six year olds language moves beyond communication to provide a foundation for learning" and continues six-year-olds "draw emotional stability from their interactions with adults with whom they feel secure, particularly during challenging situations and circumstances."

Part three: Intention

It's useful to understand your niece's intentions. And you can do this by saying something like "I saw you hanging out with your cousin and showing him your awesome genitals. What did you want him to notice? How did you decide to show him?" Try to avoid using the word "why" because we tend to attach judgement to it in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And if you personally struggle with the taboo of sex, and the historical shaming of it, think about your niece, or any kid in this scenario, showing off a different part of their body, like their teeth or ear lobe.

Most importantly, make sure you're studying your own intentions. Do you want her to stop doing that behavior? Do you want her to understand cultural modesty? We really try hard to prevent our kids from being sexualized. We try to teach them our values and social norms. But which of those are helpful to your niece, and which aren't?

Take, for example, how hard we try to separate the sexes - keep their genitals secret, cover them up, put them in different rooms, mark them with different clothes and haircuts and names. We don't point to our child's penis and say to his siblings "This is a penis. It was made after his neck and before his fingernails, just like your clitoris! Which is really sensitive, like a penis, but just a different shape!" Not that we do this within sexes, but we especially don't do it across them.

Ask yourself how the addition of the male adjective in your question alters the story you tell yourself about your niece's actions. And what place do you want adjectives like "male" to have in your conversations with her? What if her cousin was female? Do you want that to matter? We get to ask ourselves about the biases and shame packed into our words and figure out how to replace them with curiosity. Curiosity is the answer. Stay Curious.

I've put some possible "Dear Niece" scripts in the comments. If any of you have other ideas, I hope you add them below, so we can have an awesome resource for the concerned families of naked children. We deliver a new video every Wednesday about the ever-so-interesting, important and complicated topic of sexuality. If you subscribe, you'll get notified when this happens. We'll also let you know on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.