Young children and their sexual development

12 Sep

Young children’s awareness of their bodies and the resulting sexual exploration is something that makes many parents and teachers very uncomfortable. Even though we know that it is normal, our spontaneous reaction is to act prohibitive. Like all things in life, and especially like all things that have to do with the normal development of children, we have to be careful not to do more harm than good.

Babies explore their bodies from a very young age. When they are toddlers they discover their mouths and its ability to help discover other things in the world. They put objects up their noses and in their ears, and they look at their navels with great interest. But the moment they start exploring the other openings in their bodies, the emotionally important adults in their lives get uncomfortable. Please do not think for one moment that young children are unaware of this discomfort. Whether we voice our discomfort or just keep quiet, our reaction is interpreted by these young explorers that there must be something more to these openings. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!

Babies are not born asexual like the cherubs in cathedrals. As adults we tend to view the sexual exploration of young children from our own experience as adults. The sexual acts of adults are driven by desire. The sexual exploration of young children is driven by the urge to find out. How young children react to this normal developmental phase will depend on the adults’ reaction. If we react punitively, we immediately start building an attitude viewing sex as wrong and something that should not be enjoyed. Remember that children explore what their brains need to explore. If we handle this calmly and unemotionally, they find out what they need to and move on.

Young children use masturbation when they are bored, sad or tired. Like all things in life there should be rules. These rules are very simple: it is all right to masturbate, but you do it in private, you do not do it with someone else and we also do not touch each other.

Sometimes, in the school situation, we see young children where this process has been handled in a punitive way. Children always pass on what they receive. If they receive love and acceptance from us, that is how they relate to their friends at school. If we act harshly and punitively, especially if it is in reaction to normal exploration, we push these children into situations where they will act punitively towards other children. Children exposed to developmentally inappropriate videos, games or pictures also play these scenes out to understand better. Parents think it is all right for children to view inappropriate material because they anyway do not understand the actions on the screen. However, even if they are too young to understand, violence (and adult sex is often interpreted as violent by children) has a menacing influence on the development of children, pushing them into a developmental phase for which they are not ready.

Parents always ask how do we know what our children are doing is normal? If we handle sexual development as normal and provide rules, children do not act with guilt. We should never close the door of conversation and communication on anything children do. If you feel uncomfortable talking about these issues with your young child, consider getting help. Many of us are products of parenting styles where conversations on sexual development were considered evil and sinful. Please do not put the same burden on your child.

To end on a light note, here is a story from my childhood about children on holiday at the seaside. The children arrived home to tell their mother that they swam in the nude with another group of kids. The horrified mother asked: “Were they girls or boys?” Full of the innocence of young children, they answered: “We don’t know, because they did not have any clothes on!”


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