Care and Feeding

My Toddler Really, Really, Really Wants to Take Pictures of Her Vagina With My Phone

I’m so proud of her body positivity! But noooooooooooooooo.

A woman peers at her phone, shocked, just shocked.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by yacobchuk/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 4-year-old daughter who is very precocious and very interested in the biology of the body. She has all sorts of body books and apps, and knows details about the circulatory system and nervous system that she loves to tell people. I’m so proud of her knowledge and curiosity! I’m trying to raise her with body positivity, accurate knowledge, and no shame related to any part of her body. We discuss the fact that some parts of her body are “private,” and she seems to understand this with regard to behavior around other people.

But recently—after a minor scratch in that area that easily healed—she’s been insistently asking me to take photos of her vagina with my phone so she can see them. The first time, I declined and said she could look in a mirror if she really wanted. But then she complained that she couldn’t see it clearly. So she’s asked for “close-up” pictures again. And again. And I’m unsure how to tell her no. It’s not something I’m comfortable with having on my phone, ever, for legal reasons and propriety. I’ve explained that it’s something adults “don’t do,” but she keeps asking me why.

Recently I found her with my phone, trying to take the picture herself. Fortunately it came out a blurry mess. But I was alarmed, especially given how easily photos can accidentally be uploaded to cloud storage, texted, etc. How can I explain to her why I cannot and she shouldn’t do this, without causing her shame, but also without having to go into dark territory about child pornography that I’m definitely not ready to explain?

—No Photos, Please!

Dear NPP,

Yeah, I’m with you. Let’s not start taking photos of our minors’ genitals or letting them do so! If you haven’t already, now is an excellent time to passcode your phone. (We found our 3-year-old about to buy plane tickets to Greece once.)

Next time she asks you to take pictures, you can stay super calm and relaxed (fake it!) and tell her that those areas of our body are private, and photos are not private, because other people can see them.

If she presses, you can go with “I already answered that, sweetie,” and then HOLD THE LINE. Do not get drawn into a prolonged justification of your very sensible rule. I know you’re trying really hard not to make her ashamed of her body, and that’s great, but kids figure out very quickly when we’re uncomfortable with something, and they always want to poke that wasp nest.

Two disclaimers! One, make sure you’re actually confident that the scratch is healed up and that she does not, in fact, have any physical discomfort in that area. Two—and this sounds extremely unlikely based on your general description of your daughter’s precociousness and curiosity—is there any possibility that someone may have suggested this to her or that she is having inappropriate conversations in general about this part of her body with someone in her life? Like I said, this sounds utterly harmless and developmentally appropriate to me, but they would take away my Parenting Advice hat if I didn’t at least ask you to eliminate that possibility.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We have a registered sex offender living five houses down from us. We got the postcard in the mail. The guy is 31 and the arrest and charge happened when he was 21. It was “molestation of a juvenile.”

We have 3-year-old twins. They don’t go in the front yard or ride their bikes on the sidewalk without us. Occasionally, they ride farther ahead than we’d like but usually stop if we call out for them to stop.

I ended up telling our boys that there was a man who lives at that house who is sometimes mean to children, and, since I don’t want him to be mean to them, I don’t want them to go near that house without us. I also said that if any neighbor asked them to come inside their house, they should shout, “No, thank you!” and run back to Mommy or Daddy.

The boys definitely remember these instructions because they bring them up once a week or so. Just wondering if, in hindsight, there’s something I should have done differently or anything else to do at this point. Thanks!

—The House at the End of the Lane

Dear THatEotL,

An aggravating thing about registered sex offenders is that they’re … everywhere. All over the place! So many sex offenders! (You can look them up on the various databases if you don’t believe me.) Lots of them are no more than public urinators or fools who were a year on the wrong side of the Romeo and Juliet laws. Some of them are real bad people. But they all have to live somewhere once they’ve served their time. This is not meant to freak you out more but rather to say that this is one of the reasons why we try to discourage our kids from spending unsupervised time with strangers in general, as opposed to just the ones we have existing suspicions about.

If I had a time machine, I would ask you not to say anything to your kids about this neighbor in particular. He’s now a subject of major interest to them! Going forward, I would continue to make sure your 3-year-olds stay within your line of sight, as you would already, and to have the same talks about strangers that you would have had if this had never come up. To the extent it’s possible, don’t talk about your neighbor again, and change the subject if it comes up.

Your best move is to leave the man alone, to remain generally vigilant, and to remember that kids are far, far more likely to be preyed upon by friends and family members (I know, this is very depressing) than strangers. Focus your efforts there (bodily autonomy, private areas, not doing things that make you uncomfortable, grown-ups should never ask you to keep secrets from your parents, etc.) and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am giving my niece and nephews and my brother and sister-in-law a weeklong trip to Disneyland for Christmas. It’s something they have always wanted to do, but bills and life have gotten in the way.

My sister-in-law knows and approves of this gift. I have offered to split the credit with her, or she can tell the kids it’s from them, but she doesn’t want that and says it’s fine if I tell them it’s from me.

I do not have kids and I have a good job, so I do help out my family a lot. My sister-in-law’s family members have made snide remarks about it in the past to me, and I know my brother and sister-in-law feel indebted to me for other things, so I just want everyone to understand this is a gift with no strings attached.

How can I make this go smoothly? I am already planning on giving it to them on the day after Christmas so it doesn’t overshadow the holiday with their family. The kids have asked me about money and careers before (they are 13, 12, and 11), and we had a chat about how some jobs pay more than others but that doesn’t mean the person is worth more or better than someone else.

—The Rich One

Dear TRO,

You are already being significantly more thoughtful about this than most people would be. I think you’ve handled it very well, and I like that you’re trying to take steps not to undermine or overshadow their parents. Your sister-in-law has approved the gift, so let’s believe her that she’s fine with you getting the credit for it.

I hope they have a wonderful trip!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband is a pack-a-day smoker and has been for 20 years. While he planned to quit before we had kids, we’re now seven years down the road with two sons, countless failed attempts, and no change. I’ve accepted that nothing I say or do will make him quit, but I’m terrified our children will go on to become smokers as well. They love the smell of smoke on clothes (“It smells like daddy!”), and like many kids, they think every single thing he does is the coolest. He doesn’t smoke around them, but he doesn’t hide it. They know he’s out in the garage and exactly what he’s doing.

I have a tremendous amount of resentment toward his smoking, in an otherwise wonderful marriage. How do I balance teaching our kids about the danger, cost, smell, time, and deadly health effects of smoking with the fact that their hero dad does it anyway? (He and I work hard to be a cohesive parenting team about so many other things, and I’d never bad-mouth him to our kids or anyone else.) Do I just hope my healthy lifestyle is enough of an example to overcome whatever nature-and-nurture predisposition they’ll have to smoking because of him?

—Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

This would drive me wild, and I want to magically fix your husband. Unfortunately, as you know, that’s not really an option. He’s made it pretty clear he plans on continuing to smoke. It’s a terrible parenting choice, but whatever, that’s where we are. At least he’s making an effort not to do so in front of the kids. Arrrgh, what is he—OK, OK, I’ll leave him alone.

I’m interested to know what he says to the kids about smoking. Does he tell them it’s expensive and unhealthy and so on? Or does he avoid the issue? I’m asking because what you can actually insist on is a unified message to the kids: Cigarettes are a really colossally bad idea. You have an example of the dark power of addiction right there in your house, so you might as well use it. I think this is worth a sit-down family meeting, followed by no longer discussing the cigarettes. Otherwise you’ll just wind up saying passive-aggressive things sporadically and it’ll continue to be confusing for the kids.

Has he tried hypnotherapy? … I’m sorry.

I also suggest couples counseling, because you are frustrated and resentful, with good cause, and it might help to talk this out a bit with a neutral third party. They can also help you craft exactly what you want to say to the kids. I imagine your husband, who you say is otherwise a great guy, may feel like a loser and a failure for not being able to quit after repeated attempts. It would do him some good to verbalize that, and it might help you meet him partway.

It helped my aunt to get some kind of laser therapy. It sounded super fake but it worked, and she quit over 10 years ago and hasn’t gone back even though her husband is a chain smoker! [Shakes self] Game face, Nicole! Game face!

Your kids, like all kids, will want to try new things. A dad who smokes might well be a factor in picking up the habit, but it’s a small piece of the puzzle. Honestly, in 2018, they’re far more likely to respond to the ubiquity of Juuling on social media than to start something as old-fashioned as cigarettes. Happily for you, the kids are at most 7 years old, so I doubt they’ll be sneaking off to the garage anytime soon.

Actually, there’s one more question I want you to ask your husband: How will we respond if one of the kids does start smoking? Let him sit with that a bit. If he eventually decides to quit, it’s going to be on his terms, so I would cease talking to him about his own habit after you hash things out in couples counseling.

Has he tried Zyban? Sorry, I promised to leave him alone.

—Nicole

Ask a Teacher

I’m trying to figure out what is reasonable timing for schools to request materials or contributions from families. For example, the holiday show at my kids’ school is in a week. Apparently they need costumes, but only one of the teachers has bothered to tell us what costume should be provided. The list goes on—posters, family photos, etc.—all requested with 24 to 48 hours’ notice. Their failure to plan does not constitute an emergency for my family, but I don’t want my kids punished. What can I do?