Q: My 4-year-old won’t stop touching his penis, including at daycare.
It’s been going on for awhile. I haven’t told him it’s wrong or punished him for it, just told him he has to go to his room or bathroom and close the door if he wants to do that because I don’t want to see it. But I’m not sure if that’s the right move. Is this normal? Am I doing something wrong?
It’s always fascinating to me when a state tries to mandate that sexuality education in schools should be opt-in, like what is currently proposed in Idaho. The implication of such laws is that children should learn about sex at home, from their parents.
Parents are absolutely the first line in sex education, but just because someone is a parent does not mean they feel equipped. Thanks to the 1996 welfare reform act, most people who are now parenting small kids did not receive scientifically accurate sex education themselves. Never mind that teaching a subject requires a different skill set – the average adult would probably not pass a basic test of sexual anatomy, much less comfortably articulate more nuanced facets, like consent or gender.
All that is to say: You are not alone in feeling confused. This is the intergenerational curse of discomfort that many in America have suffered for decades, and you are going to break this pattern. Fortunately, you have the support of many compassionate professionals who are ready to help!
I reached out to two local sexuality educators who specialize in working with kids and asked their advice for folks with young children.
“If you feel uncomfortable (whether about genitals or any other sexuality or body topic), that’s great to notice and talk about with other adults,” says Isy Abraham-Raveson, co-founder and director of education at YES!, which was recently profiled in Philly Weekly.
They add, “In order to support the children we love, most of us will need to process and unlearn a lot of how adults interacted with us when we were young around sexuality and bodies.” Abraham-Raveson adds, “It’s important to show them that it’s normal and good to talk about bodies, because bodies are normal and good.”
Parents are absolutely the first line in sex education, but just because someone is a parent does not mean they feel equipped.
“Talk about genitals the same as you would any other part of their body,” says sexologist Dr. Lyndsay Mercier.
“We don’t avoid teaching our children about their knees or elbows or make up cutesy names for them; their genitals should be no different. Talk to your child using proper terminology for their genitals. For example, use words like, penis,’ “testicles,’ “vulva’ and ‘vagina.’”
Mercier, who is also a parent, says, “If your child knows the right words for their body parts, they will be better prepared to describe to you any problems they may be having – such as pain, an injury, a rash, or even abuse. Additionally, talking to your kids openly about their genitals reinforces the idea that their body parts aren’t shameful, and will make them feel comfortable enough to come to you when they have questions or concerns.”
And what is the expert take on a toddler who plays with their genitals a lot?
“You don’t necessarily need to do anything. Exploring their own body is totally normal for young children – it’s no different from when they first discovered their toes,” says Mercier.
“Avoid scolding them or making a huge deal about the behavior. You can try gently redirecting their attention to another activity if they are touching themselves at an inappropriate time, but for the most part, it is probably just a passing curiosity that will eventually subside.”
She says, “Explain to them that there is nothing wrong with touching their own body, but it is something that should be done in private and by themselves.”
Abraham-Raveson adds that this is a good time to discuss hygiene and the importance of handwashing.
“I’ve been a preschool teacher, and kids do play with their genitals a lot, and in front of others (especially at nap time), and it was always OK. It helped them calm down or take naps, and I never heard other kids comment on it. Usually, it’s the adults that are paying so much attention and feel worried, and the kids are just living their lives.”
When it comes to talking about sex in general, Mercier says “If they are old enough or curious enough to ask questions about a topic, they are ready to learn the answer. Even before they start asking questions, be on the lookout for teachable moments.”
You can try gently redirecting their attention to another activity if they are touching themselves at an inappropriate time, but for the most part, it is probably just a passing curiosity that will eventually subside.
She suggests keeping descriptions simple for younger kids, getting into details of anatomy as they grow up. She adds, “This is a great time to also talk about consent, and about how they are the boss of their own body.”
“Just remember to talk about them from a kid perspective, not an adult perspective,” says Abraham-Raveson.
“For many adults, masturbation is related to sexual fantasy, partnered sex, porn, etc. But for kids, it’s self-exploration, self-soothing, self-pleasure, and all of those things are age appropriate.”
Resources to learn more about sexuality education for kids:
List of Best Books for Parents of Young Kids
SIECUS Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education K-12
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