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Sexual Curiosity: A Child's Perspective

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Children ages 2 to 4 are as naturally curious about what a penis is for as they are about why the sky is blue. Sexuality and genitalia have no excess emotional weight for children that age. That is why they sometimes blurt out shocking questions while waiting in line at the bank. Answering children’s questions simply and clearly can pave the way for ensuring that you remain your child’s major source of information as the years pass. He’ll ask about what he’s ready to hear, so be ready to answer his concerns when they come up.

Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. We have so many feelings—embarrassment, guilt, confusion—tied up with sex that we often do poorly talking about it. Here are some guidelines for handling the subject when the tough questions come up.

  Keep It Simple

  Don’t Necessarily Wait to Be Asked

  Avoid Freaking Out

  When to Worry

  Helpful Books

Keep It Simple
Children do not want all the details. “A mother’s egg and a father’s sperm come together and make a baby that grows in a special place called the womb, or uterus,” is a simple answer to “How are babies made?” for example.

You can answer the question “Why does my brother have a penis and I don’t?” by simply saying, “Boys have penises and girls have vaginas.” Don’t tell her more than she really wants to know. If you give an answer, wait for a follow-up question. If there isn’t one, you’ve probably given enough information for that time. You’ve also let your child know that you can handle future questions.

A child may not fully absorb what you say the first time and may ask the same questions over and over. She may be thinking about her own theories and checking them against your facts. Whatever the reason, do not feel that you have failed if your child appears to forget what you’ve already told her. Consistent, straightforward answers are what she needs.

Don’t Necessarily Wait to Be Asked
When I was growing up, parents planned “the talk.” This was usually a one-shot attempt to explain the birds and bees. That is no longer appropriate, if it ever was. Ongoing discussions at your child’s current level of understanding are better.

You may have heard that you should wait until your child asks specific questions, and that is good advice. However, if she has reached kindergarten and still hasn’t asked about anything, try bringing the subject up yourself.

Use any situation that presents itself naturally to initiate some conversation. For example, you might say, “See that woman’s big tummy? She’s pregnant. Do you know what that means?”

Avoid Freaking Out
The same curiosity that makes children ask questions also prompts them to explore and compare each other. If you find your child “playing doctor” with a friend, remind yourself that this is innocent play. Calmly explain that private parts are just that—private, and not to be shared with others.

Toddlers and preschoolers often discover that touching themselves can be pleasurable. They tend to do this when tired, when watching television, or when falling asleep. Masturbation is normal and not harmful. The tack to take when you see your daughter rubbing herself on a pillow or your son holding himself as though he had a built-in subway strap is to remind the child that while it is all right to touch ourselves, it should be done in private. It is not bad, just personal.

You Don’t Have to Know Everything
When questions come out of left field, you might need a few minutes to give a good answer. Tell your child what a hard question that was and that you need a moment or two to think about it. This is better than hemming and hawing in order to answer right away and then saying something you may regret later. If you are stumped, simply admit that you do not know the answer.

When to Worry
While curiosity and exploration are normal, excessive preoccupation with sexual matters or persistent masturbation despite your attempts to contain it are worrisome. This may be a sign of emotional disturbance, exposure to inappropriate sexual material, or even sexual abuse. If you are concerned, consult your pediatrician. Referral to a psychologist skilled in evaluating children may head off later problems.

If a playmate repeatedly explores your child’s body or if an older child engages yours in sexual play, keep them apart. In my opinion, you should mention your reasons to the other child’s parent, even though you risk facing some anger.

Helpful Books

For parents:

How to Talk to Your Child About Sex, Linda Eyre and Richard M. Eyre (Golden Books, 1999).

To read with children:

Did the Sun Shine Before You Were Born? Sol and Judith Gordon (Prometheus Books, 1992).

Where Did I Come From? Peter Mayle (Lyle Stuart, 1986).  

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