Preschoolers & Sexuality

Playing doctor and finding spots that feel good to touch are part of a young child's normal growth. Here's how to handle awkward situations that can crop up.


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Between ages 4 and 6, children begin asking lots of questions about where babies come from. Playing doctor is another expression of natural curiosity.

In addition to playing doctor, youngsters at this age often enjoy masturbating. When adults react to these innocent actions by making faces, getting angry, and saying that these things are "bad," children become confused, frightened, and less open about their curiosity. As teens, these youngsters may not feel free to talk with parents about sexuality. Stay open to your children's questions about sex. Be honest and simple with your answers.

Q: My husband discovered our 4-year-old son and a neighbor's daughter, age 5, naked and playing doctor. How should we handle these situations?

A: When you find children playing doctor, try to stay calm and collected. Getting upset will only confuse or frighten the children, and it won't accomplish anything constructive. Divert the youngsters' attention while mentioning that what they are doing is not allowed: "I don't want you two playing together like that. Put your clothes on and come downstairs. I could use your help with something." Keep in mind that it's natural for young kids to show some interest in sex and sex differences.

Q: We recently found our 5-year-old daughter and her 6-year-old female cousin pretending to have sex. We later learned that they've been doing this repeatedly. Could this cause the girls to have homosexual leanings later in life?

A: No. Young children are neither heterosexual nor homosexual. Their sexual explorations have nothing to do with the labels adults impose on sexuality. Besides, it's likely that the girls took turns being "the man."

Keep your cool and maintain an open mind. That way you'll open, rather than close, lines of communication, reassure rather than frighten. Encourage the girls to ask questions that they may have been trying to answer through play.

Q: Our 5-year-old daughter has recently started masturbating. We have tried to ignore it, but several times have had to tell her to stop because we were in public. Can you help us understand why she started doing this and give us some suggestions for handling it?

A: Your daughter probably started masturbating because she accidentally discovered that rubbing herself feels good. If she's well-adjusted and gets along well with other children her age, you have no reason to be concerned.

Children have a need for, and a right to, privacy, including the right to masturbate in private. The act does no harm, and won't become a big deal if you don't make a big deal over it.

On the other hand, the child who masturbates publicly needs to learn that this isn't acceptable. You might say something like, "You seem to enjoy rubbing yourself between your legs. That's all right, but not where other people can see you. If you want to do that, you must go to your room. If you're doing this because you're bored, we'll help you find something else to do."

Q: We regularly dress in front of our 15-month-old son and take baths with him. Should we stop appearing nude in front of him? How should we answer when he asks about our bodies?

A: At this age, there's no harm in what you're doing. When he asks about your genitals, answer him as casually as if he had pointed to your nose.

Some professionals argue that parents should use proper anatomical terms. Don't worry about it. Words like "winky" and "bum-bum" are no more misleading than saying "tummy" for stomach. Let's not be so serious.

As he nears school age, teach him to respect your privacy. You should respect his, too. But don't be neurotic about it. It's impossible for people living together not to catch a glimpse of each other's unadorned bodies occasionally.

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