Young children often have a fascination for what some of them call ‘the rude bits’. Libby Burke suggests some useful strategies for parents.
You catch them in bed together. The covers are drawn and you hear giggling. Do you walk away or confront them? This scenario is not two adults involved in a moment of intimacy, but toddlers engaged in typically, natural sexual exploration.
Playing ‘doctors and nurses’ is not a new phenomenon, but with increasing concerns of paedophilia, using the words sexuality and children in the one breath can be socially taboo.
Early development no longer seems reserved for a precocious few. A US study revealed girls are reaching puberty about one and half years earlier than their mothers’ generation, and there's no denying children are exposed to more sexual issues and images at an earlier age.
In this age of early maturation how do we balance children's inherent curiosity to discover their own sexuality without inflicting an adult's perspective on normal childhood development?
Sarah Attwood, community programs coordinator for Family Planning of Queensland, says children are sexual beings from birth and teachings about their sexuality can begin from day one. ‘Babies are curious and fascinated with their genitals.
Of course children don’t experience sexual desire in the same way as adults, but they do have a natural curiosity and enjoy touching and having different parts of their body touched. ‘A lot of teaching begins from the moment of birth through our own values, belief systems and relationships. It may be incidental such as naming body parts during nappy change or even through the child's observation of parents’ and carers’ relationships.’
While sexual attitudes and beliefs may be as unique as the families that share them, Attwood says there are certain activities children do which are normal in their early development. The important factor is for children to learn rules of appropriateness. ‘Children engaging in sexual play and experimenting is completely natural but there are a few things to keep in mind'.
‘It is important the children involved are both happy to be there and they are respecting each other. Some children are more sexual than others. There are pre-schoolers who never masturbate and touch themselves, while others often do it.
There should not be a situation where one child is forcing themselves on another.’ Children of the same age playing together are acceptable, but an age gap of greater than three years may be inappropriate, Attwood says. Siblings playing ‘mums and dads’ is another perfectly normal activity for children to engage in.
How parents and carers respond to certain situations is crucial in allowing children to maintain their self-esteem. ‘How you react to these situations will give your children very strong messages about sexuality. For example, reacting with anger, disgust or by punishing the child could cause the child to feel guilty or ashamed and perhaps quite confused.
If the situation is responded to with casual questioning such as 'Are you pretending you are grown up?' or 'Tell me about the game you are playing’, you are approving of your child's curiosity while giving yourself the opportunity to gather some more information.’
Attwood suggests parents may then wish to discuss issues of privacy and personal safety with their children and set limits for acceptable behaviour. ‘You need to be direct, clear and explain privacy and respect for other people.
The main message is to be honest and truthful. You don't want them to feel ashamed. Parents and carers can be assured that children will eventually grow out of games such as ‘doctors and nurses’ and ‘mums and dads’.
It is important to stay calm, be positive and above all maintain a sense of humour. The child should lead the discussion and parents or carers should answer honestly and briefly. Entering into long lectures may only confuse the child, Attwood says. Ignoring their actions was another viable option for parents, as long as their behaviour fit within the appropriate boundaries.
In Pam Linke's book, Pants Aren't Rude, she says parents set the tone for their children's sexual behaviour. ‘The biggest effect on children does not come from the facts they learn but the attitudes, values, and behaviours of the adults on whom they depend.’
‘If you have attitudes or beliefs that devalue sexuality, even if you cover them up, children will sense that something is not right.’
Issues such as masturbation and cross-dressing are normal occurrences in early childhood exploration, Linke explains. For young children ‘mastering their domain’, she suggests distraction, and for school age children allow them the freedom to indulge in private.
And if your son is donning your best frock or your daughter insists on wearing her brother's gear, don't be alarmed. ‘It is healthy for young children in play and in dressing-up to try on different aspects of both male and female gender roles and in this way learn different aspects of gender role behaviour,’ Linke says.
It’s essential for children to value themselves and to feel valued for whatever gender they are. And remember, most children with such behaviours are just exploring their world.
The main message for parents is that children should receive positive response to their sexuality. Sarah Attwood also dismisses the notion that early childhood sex education links to promiscuity.
‘Research shows children who have received on-going age appropriate sexuality education are more likely to develop healthy attitudes about themselves and their relationships. They’ll also be better equipped to make informed decisions regarding sexuality.’
By Libby Burke
Family Planning Associations in each state offer a range of resources for parents of pre-school and school age children who wish to address issues concerning children and sexuality.
Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia - the umbrella website of Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia with links to state organisations
Open Doors – the Wonder of Living DVD series, Conversations with your Child
Hair in Funny Places, Babette Cole.
A picture book for young children about hormones, growing up and babies.
Mummy Laid an Egg, Babette Cole.
Mum and dad decide it’s time they told the children about the facts of life. Mum says that babies are made out of gingerbread. Dad says that Mummy laid an egg. So it’s up to the children to put them right on a few things.
Where Did I Come From? Peter Mayle.
Tells the facts of life with humour and in a style parents and children can understand and enjoy.
Hello Baby, Julie Overend.
A picture story book for young children; beautiful illustrations and simple text celebrating the birth of a baby at home.
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, May 2002. Updated July 2009.