When I was 5 or 6, I had a play date with Noah. I remember that we both put a pair of his underwear on over our clothes, turned off his bedroom light, got into his closet and kissed. Noah’s dad came in, invited us out of the closet and out of the underwear and suggested we keep the lights on and bedroom door open. We moved on to a new game.
Boundaries are something we learn and are not born knowing. My playdate activity was benign, rather sweet and silly really, and Noah’s dad put it all to an end without causing alarm or casting unnecessary blame.
So what do you do when you have a 5 or 6 year old that is sexually curious and pursues opportunities to fulfill their curiosity?
Curiosity, after all, is something we appreciate and encourge in our kids. And kids shouldn’t ever feel shame for their curiosity. Gone are the days when sexual expression by children is treated as pathological or pre-pathological. We are sexual beings in utero and continue to be throughout our lives. Impulsive, excited, or curious sex play like mutual touching, visual exploration and mimicking sexual activity are usually innocuous and healthy. This is especially the case when paired with consent and equal expressions of inquisitiveness and experimentation. So, in other words, you don’t necessarily have to to anything about the behaviour.
Sometimes sexual play stops looking like the kind of ‘play’ that is healthy and you might wonder if it is aligned with normative sexual expression. It’s not a bad idea to think this through a bit and understand what might be driving your own feelings about your child’s sexual expression. Many of us might have engaged in sexual play as kids and perhaps were shamed or humiliated by an adult or maybe the activity started as play and then stopped feeling that way at some point. We can only do our very best with the histories that we have. At the end of the day, it’s okay (no, great!) to talk to your child about boundaries and consent. And if you think it important to do so, explain that certain activities are not the way to satisfy their curiosity. Like always, your values ought to guide you.
An approach to talking to your child:
- Start a conversation with your child in a place and at a time that wouldn’t feel threatening to them. And start it in a very relaxed way, without creating a sense that it’s a really big deal, even if it feels like that to you. You could say ‘Remember the last time you played with x? Let’s talk about that.’
- Let your child know that our bodies are really interesting things. You can talk about thumbs and how amazingly helpful they are. Or about how hair and nails grow fastest when we are sleeping (and keep growing after we die!). And you can talk about genitals. How penises are cool (contextualize here where you can). And how vulvas are cool too.
- This is a great time to make sure that you have a book or two about bodies. Introduce it, and make plans to read it with them. Robie Harris’ books are great for this.
- You can talk about how their body belongs to them and that they are allowed to touch their own body in whatever safe ways they want. And that other people’s bodies belong to them and that while it’s ok to touch other people’s thumbs and hair, etc. there are parts of people’s bodies that are private and by and large should not be touched. Of course, it’s good to qualify that. Explain that it’s ok for parents and caregivers to help kids wash their bodies, or wipe their bums, and if a private part of your body is hurt, a doctor might help.
- Be explicit about what the ‘private’ parts are (I talk about penis, vulva, anus, breasts and mouth). You can also use – the middle parts – which is the language that Cory Silverberg uses in his fantastic book Sex is a funny word.
- I’d also reinforce that when people touch their genitals, they ought to be in a private place. Then you can brainstorm what constitutes a private place for them and for your family.
- Then bring it back to the visit with x. And let them know that because of all of this private body and behaviour stuff, showing y, touching y, doing y, is not an appropriate activity.
- I’d ask if they understand or have any questions and would let them know that you are always happy to hear any questions about bodies or what they can do.
- I’d keep the convo relatively short and light in tone. And I’d bring it up again in a week, in another context and another safe setting so that you reinforce it and help your child see that its a normal and healthy conversation that you’re engaged in.
If you observe sexual behaviors that are threatening, exploitative, causing injury and/or increasingly chronic, and if your child’s attitude is anxious, obsessive, manipulative, angry or otherwise lacking self-control, you might want to speak to a therapist or psychologist for a better understanding of what’s going on or how to tackle the challenge. If you do seek support, please ask the clinician what their perspectives on children and sexuality are and make sure they line up with your own perspectives.
One final caveat – if your child is showing some of these sexual behaviors and attitudes and has experienced sexual abuse of any kind, great care must be taken to resocialize healthy viewpoints while avoiding new, however subtle, distorted messages concerning sexuality. It might be wise to find additional resources for supporting young victims of sexual abuse to develop healthy psycho-sexual attitudes.