How private should we be teaching children to be about their “parts”?
Between the ages of about two and three years old, children will begin to learn about their bodies. Along the way, they will coincidentally learn that they have so called “private parts”. They will most definitely explore these parts, privately or not. The knowledge of these parts as “private” is important not only to save parents from embarrassingly uninhibited proud displays, but sometimes even for their own protection. However, around that ages of about five or six years old, a child is likely to very innocently treat these parts as not so private. ill never forget the day a little five year old girls was travelling ahead of me, up an escalator, holding her mothers hand. She turned to face me, proudly lifting her red dress to announce that her mom had just bought her new panties. Her mother went as red as the dress.
It is also common for children of this age to share these “secret” parts with each other through play, especially with friends of a similar age. They are entering into a world where they are realising that boys and girls are, in fact, different and they are beginning to experiment with how these differences work. This play is usually out of curiosity and involves an acknowledgment of sexual differences. “Where’s your windy?” or “Let me see your bum bum”. They will sometimes even act out “displays of affection” that they have seen from parents or on TV. Children might even learn that touching or rubbing the genitals brings comfort. This behaviour is normally very innocent and a healthy part of a child’s development. A child who is emotionally distressed or anxious, may get into the habit of rubbing his or her genitals as a form of self soothing. We often make the mistake of interpreting these behaviours in terms of adult sexual behaviours. However, children’s intentions and experiences of these events are not the same as they would be between adults.
So how do we respond to these behaviours? It is important for parents to respond to child’s curiosity about their bodies. Play between children of a “sexual” nature is an indication that this curiosity exists. Even though some parents might deliberately introduce their children to a story about sex, pregnancy and birth, you also teach your children in non-deliberate ways about sex. For example, how you act and speak about your own nudity are ways that children learn about how these “private things” work and how they should feel about their own private parts. The way we respond when we “catch” children exploring their private parts through play plays a very important role in shaping the story they develop about sex and their own bodies. Ideally we want them to feel good about their bodies rather than to feel fear, secrecy and shame. Secrecy and shame could make them easier targets for sexual abuse.
In general, parents and teachers should avoid reacting in shocked and distressed ways:
- In ways that will lead the child to feel shame or disgust about their own bodies and behaviour.
- In ways that would be considered as punishment for the behaviour.
- In ways that create for them a sense that the world is a dangerous place.
- In ways that will discourage them from talking openly if something every did happen to them.
If children are discovered playing with each others “private parts”. These events are a perfect opportunity to help satisfy your child’s curiosity and introduce them to your own preferred story about sex. Normally a child would be discouraged in a gentle and non-punishing way from public explorations of their own bodies and those of others. However, private curiosity about their own bodies should not necessarily be discouraged altogether. Parents are often horrified at the idea that sex could be a topic at such a young age but it is well accepted in the field of psychology that children have a “libidinous energy” that they may display in innocent ways.
There is no doubt that there are situations where displays of seemingly sexualised behaviour in children is important cause for concern when. Parents should look out for situations where:
- There is a significant age gap between the children involved.
- The play displays knowledge of an unusually adult nature about sex.
- The behaviour is accompanied by significant distress or anger from the child.
- The behaviour is present even with people unfamiliar to the child.
- The behaviour is persistent or obsessive, even when gently discouraged.
We live in a society where sexual information is becoming more and more available to children of a younger age. It is better to introduce your child to your preferred story about sex rather than make them vulnerable to other influences that are less within your control. This makes it important to develop an open relationship with your children in ways that do not completely compromise their innocence. Just because sex is a dangerous topic in today’s world does not mean that children can’t feel positive about their own feelings, curiosities and their bodies.
When doing mediation with playschools where children’s sexual curiosity has created considerable alarm and discomfort, I have noticed that teachers often experience the event as a failure on their part. Parents might even contribute to this by putting the management of the school into question. These are valuable opportunities for the parents to become involved in the schools policies, such as: the monitoring of children’s play, rules on displays of affection at school or the age gaps of children who are allowed to play together. Many parents have never imagined their children as having a curiosity about sex or being exposed to things of a sexual nature at such a young age – often responding with fear, anger or shock when children do display sexual type behaviour. Ultimately, it is an entirely normal part of a child’s physical and emotional development.
It is widely understood that:
- Children do need some boundaries in terms of what is appropriate but we need to be careful not to leave them with negative impressions of their own bodies.
- We want to protect our children from any physical and emotional harm and the best way to do this is to encourage a healthy openness rather than secrecy and shame.
- Sexual play is normal, it should not go unnoticed and can be cause for concern in specific instances.
- In many cases, however, it is most often the response from parents and teachers that is most traumatic for the children and not the play itself.
There is no doubt that we need to protect our children from harm. Sexual abuse is alarmingly common and displays of sexual curiosity should not go unnoticed. However, we also need to preserve a healthy attitude towards our bodies, especially in young girls. It might just be the thing that protects them from abuse.