Your Child Today: 3 to 5 years

Sexual Curiosity: How to keep your preschooler's sexuality in perspective

It's hard to think of your preschooler as a sexual being. Yet that becomes evident when your little Tessa begins to touch her genitals during bathtime or while dressing.

If you're like most parents, your reaction is a mixture of acceptance, resistance and worry. Yet the fact is, your child has been a sexual being since birth. To keep things in perspective, remember that the following sexual behaviors are considered normal for preschoolers of both sexes:

  1. immodesty or exhibitionism
  2. curiosity about exploring their bodies
  3. self-stimulation
  4. talking about how it feels good to touch their bodies
  5. curiosity about the opposite sex and different body parts
  6. an interest in "playing doctor"
  7. testing personal boundaries by rubbing up against others.

At this age, abnormal sexual behavior usually comes down to being preoccupied with self-stimulation to the exclusion of other activities. In health education, we often say that a parent's reaction to a preschooler's sexuality is just as significant as the things the child is saying or doing. Here are some suggestions for perplexed parents.

When answering questions about your child's body, be honest and brief. Let the level of his curiosity determine how much information you provide. Avoid laborious details but use appropriate language ("penis," "vagina," "breast"). Euphemisms may teach children that something is offensive about certain body parts.

If you find your child playing doctor with another child, don't scream, shame or scold. Instead, direct your child into another activity. Later, talk quietly with your child about how we keep our private parts covered no matter what our age. Explain that some behaviors, such as being naked, are acceptable in the bathroom or bedroom, but not in public. Tell her that she must not show her genitalia to anyone other than a physician during a physical examination.

Differentiate between good touch and bad touch. Teach your child that she must tell you if anyone touches her private parts or where her bathing suit touches. Let her know she must not hug strangers.

Stick to the basics. If your preschooler asks where babies come from, explain that a baby grows from a tiny egg in a special place in Mommy's womb (point to your abdomen), then it comes out of the vagina. You do not have to explain intercourse. Instead, say that when a mommy and daddy love each other they like to be close. Then when the daddy's sperm joins the mommy's egg, the baby begins to grow.

At older ages, your child will revisit the same questions: "Where did I come from?" "Why are boys and girls different?" and "What kind of touching is okay?" Help your child learn enough at each stage to develop healthy sexual attitudes, feelings and behaviors.

?Debra Bruce
Health journalist and mother of three

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