How to Talk to Your Average Four-Year-Old
by Allegra Ringo
One night when I was 19, I baby-sat a four-year-old girl named Amy (whose name has been changed). Amy had recently discovered genitals and their inherent hilariousness. Not surprisingly, this topic dominated the evening’s conversation. After Amy got ready for bed, she said, “Guess what I’m wearing under my pajamas?” I guessed — naively, I’ll admit — “Underwear?” She said “No! Nothing!” then pulled down her pajama bottoms and laughed hysterically.
At another point during the night, she asked me, “Want to see my privates? It’s okay, because we have the same body!” A fair point.
I considered her question. My first impulse was to shout “NO! DON’T!” and run out the door. I could head for the border and start a new life, free from children and their uncomfortably real genitalia. But as someone who prides herself on her feminist beliefs, the last thing I wanted to do was recoil — accidentally teaching a little girl to feel bodily shame is pretty much my greatest fear.
This greatest fear was at odds with my other greatest fear: coming off as a creep who likes looking at naked kids. At what point, I wondered, would I become the creepy one in this situation? Where was the line between simply refraining from telling her to stop, and actively taking part in looking at a naked kid? What if it didn’t bother me that much? Was that the same as enjoying it? I was pretty sure that just thinking about this was illegal.
I considered how it would sound if told a friend the story. “I was baby-sitting a little girl, and she showed me her vagina. What could I do? I just stared at her intently, saying nothing.” There had to be some sort of law about looking at a child’s genitals for longer than some amount of time, child pornography legislation being what it is. I didn’t know at what point this became illegal — not to mention traumatic, oh God — and I was terrified of crossing that point unknowingly.
Having obviously paused for way too long, I eventually said, “No thanks, not right now.”
I can’t say this response makes a lot of sense. I have yet to think of a scenario in which I would cash such a rain check. But at this point, I was banking on Amy forgetting about this conversation in five minutes (a fairly safe gamble with four-year-olds).
I shouldn’t have been surprised that her answer was “Too late!” accompanied by another giggly brandishing of her genitals, which I was becoming all too familiar with.
A better grown-up would have told her, “It’s not okay to show someone your privates if they’ve told you they don’t want to see them.” Sure, I considered saying that (years later). But the realist in me, the one who had to deal with the kid for the rest of the night, laughed and said, “Good one!”