When Children’s Sexual Curiosity is okay – or Not

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(The Vancouver Sun, February 17, 2003)

Q: I’d like to get your opinion on a situation that happened last week. My four year old son had a female friend over to play (she is 5) and I walked onto the TV room to find them with their pants off. She was lying on the floor, and he was looking between her legs. Should I worry about my son’s behavior or is this normal play?

Saleema: Although it can be quite stressful for a parent to walk in on children engaging in sexual play, I wouldn’t be too concerned about your son’s behavior. As you can imagine, your son is just figuring out that not all bodies look like his, and it sounds like this is his way of investigating this difference. Of course, we don’t want to stifle the natural curiosity that young children develop as they grow up. At the same time, however, we need to teach children that it is not OK to look at or touch other people’s private parts and that there are more appropriate ways to learn about bodies. Without specific details about how you handled the situation (I’m sure you did just fine!), here are some general pointers that may be helpful should it happen again:

  • Although easier said than done, it is important that parents do not freak out or get angry when discovering a child engaging in sexual play—we don’t want them to think they are in trouble or scare them unnecessarily. Instead, you could calmly ask the children to put their clothes on and come and play where you can supervise them.
  • Without making too much of a big deal of it, it is also important to just let the parents of the other child involved know what you witnessed so that they can follow up in the same way you will with your son.
  • Later on, maybe at bedtime when your son is feeling safe and calm, you could acknowledge his curiosity about bodies. Stress that, although, you are glad he is curious, it is not appropriate to learn by looking at or touching other people’s private parts. Offer an alternative by suggesting you go to the library together and get some books to help answer his questions. Reassure him that he is not in trouble for his behavior with his friend, but it can’t happen again.
  • The question of what is considered “normal” sexual play between children is more difficult to answer. First, I would look at the reaction of the children when a parent walks into the room. If the children look up and don’t seem to be startled or phased by the presence of an adult, chances are they don’t understand that their behavior is inappropriate. To them, they are just playing. If they scramble to opposite sides of the room, however, this could demonstrate guilt or recognition that what they are doing is not OK. The age difference between the children (although in your case this is not an issue) would also be important to consider as a power imbalance could be guiding the behavior. To give you some guidelines, psychologist Toni Cavanagh Johnson lists behaviors such as playing “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine” type games with friends of the same age, exposing genitals to others, and touching other’s genitals in a playful way as common and expected for children of your son’s age. If a child plays doctor with children who are more than one year older or younger, repeatedly exposes genitals in public, or forces other children to play sex games, more intervention, possibly by a counselor or a psychologist, is needed.
  • To help teach your son about respecting private parts, you may want to check out The Very Touching Book by Jan Hindman ($18.95, 56 pages, Trade Paperbacks) or The Right Touch by Sandy Kleven ($25.50, 32 pages, Illumination Arts).