I find it interesting that this is a topic that comes up so frequently. Several years ago, I led parenting workshops at some of the local libraries. After the four to six months of my topics, the children’s program director took suggestions for new topics. Many of the recommendations were related to sexuality in some manner, including puberty, what is normal development, etc. I also have been inundated with questions lately about children discussing or talking about seemingly sexual behaviors.
I suppose I should not be surprised, as our society is becoming more and more sexualized, therefore exposing children to sex at an earlier age. However, even in the most protective of homes where children have been shielded from sexual innuendo and experiences, kids will still do or say things that can seem pretty alarming. The most common concern typically revolves around what is normal behavior regarding burgeoning sexual interest and understanding, including behaviors. So, here are the basics of what is normal and what to expect as your child grows.
Curiosity: Around the age of three, children begin to express interest in sexuality. It may be in the form of questions (“Where do babies come from?”) or behavior (exploring their genitals more frequently). You may observe that a simple answer will satisfy them or their own exploration will be enough. Some children will require more detailed explanations or continue to pursue self-discovery. Masturbation is also normal, especially when tired or upset. As long as this behavior is not obsessive (rubbing genitals on chairs, people, etc.), it is part of the sexual development process.
Change in Play: You will probably notice your children becoming more interested in playing sexually based roles in play from three to four years of age (Mommy or Daddy), rather than gender-neutral roles. This is due to their understanding that men and women are different, look and act differently, and serve different functions. It is also normal for kids to begin to play doctor around this time, while sometimes exposing themselves or asking others to expose themselves to do a “check up”. This is also normal, but should be handled delicately if one or more parent becomes concerned. You can safeguard against play getting out of hand by staying close to your children and not allowing more than a two year age difference in a child of the opposite sex. (A four year old girl can play with a boy ranging from two to six).
Around age four, children begin to understand that there is a difference between public and private behavior. This is especially important while using the bathroom, changing or bathing. They learn that while it is okay to be naked with certain people, it is not okay to be naked with others. Their sense of modesty and understanding of what is acceptable increases.
Around the age of five (and up to seven), children are typically given a bit more freedom in their play. Parents are not as concerned that they must be supervised at all times, and are more lax about who they can play with. This, of course, brings in outside influence and new ideas about sex. Every child has been told or seen certain things about sexual behaviors, and kids love to share their knowledge. So, when your child comes home and tells you that Susie showed him her underwear, you need to recognize that Susie may have been acting in conjunction with her experiences that underwear is not a private article of clothing.
Reluctance to Share
Between the ages of five and seven, kids become more unlikely to feel comfortable talking to you about sexual ideas and questions. They learn that it is sometimes embarrassing or awkward, and begin to feel more ashamed of experiences and thoughts regarding sexuality. Unfortunately, they will still be receiving information from their peers, that may or may not be what you want them to know.
Around the age of seven, children begin to move away from the elimination talk (pee, poop, potties, etc.), and move into more sexually based lingo. This is also a normal part of testing what is appropriate and what should not be said in public. Remember that often these types of words are spoken solely to test how you, the parent, will respond. Keep your reaction calm and neutral, reminding them that those words are not to be used around other people. Encourage them to use those words to ask you any questions that they wish in your home.
Ooops!: Once your child has already seen, heard or experienced something you wish you could have protected them from (XXX websites at a friend’s house, an exposure from a neighbor, a classmate’s too personal of touch), safeguard against panicking or making a big deal out of it. Remember that you are operating from experience with sexual implications, your child is not. He or she has no emotional connection to the experience, apart from what they thought or felt in the moment. There is no bigger understanding of breasts, vaginas or penises being sexual elements of the body. Children are able to take an experience for what it is worth, and can be told that it should not happen again without being made to feel that something happened that was “wrong”.
Apart from what is normal for kids, there are a few things on which experts agree regarding how to handle sexuality in kids. First, remain open to any questions at any age, even if you think it is too early for them to be asking. Answer the question simply and in terms that kids can understand. Be an “askable” parent. Second, do not shy away from sexual body parts or try to change the subject when topics come up. If you teach your children the names of body parts, include genitals. Kids know they exist, so they should know what to call them. Be a “teaching” parent. Finally, keep in mind that if you choose not to discuss sexuality with your children, they will learn it from somewhere else. In that scenario, you have much more to worry about than how you phrase your response to “How does a baby come out of it’s Mommy’s belly?”. Be a “proactive” parent.
As an aside – make sure you discuss openly and frequently that only Mom, Dad and the doctor are allowed to touch your child in his or her private areas. Teach them to say no, and to leave any situation that they know does not feel right. Play with other children is one thing, molestation is another.