Setting Limits: The Sexually Curious Child

Best ways to handle a sensitive situation

  • Grades: PreK–K

Dear Polly, Frankie, a four-year-- old in our class, seems unusually interested in sex. He frequently disrupts circle time by shouting out names of "private parts. " Yesterday, while I was reading a story to a small group, he suddenly pulled down his pants and shouted: "Look at my penis!" The other children thought this was a riot, and we had a hard time settling them down again. What should I do?

Children learn through daily experiences. They get much information about a range of subjects-including sex-from the adults and older children they know, as well as from television shows, conversations they overhear in the supermarket-and even from their peers. Frankie has probably heard these words often; in fact, his parents may have taught them to him. Frankie has found out that when he uses them in public, he gets a lot of attention.

Chances are, Frankie is perfectly normal. Though it's true that children who are sexually abused or exposed to sex in inappropriate ways may become obsessed with sex (and teachers must report any suspected sexual abuse to the proper authorities), children this age are typically interested in sex and in words used to describe sex organs. Frankie may simply be less inhibited than his classmates-- or more eager for attention.

Curiosity leads to sex exploration. It would also be perfectly normal if, let's say, Frankie wanted to look at another child's genitals (as long as he didn't seem obsessed with this). Preschool and kindergarten children are eager to make sense of the fascinating world around them. They try out all kinds of words, including ones that describe "private places," when they are in public places. Children this age also learn by doing. Young children in the U.S. and all over the world occasionally include sexual investigations in their play.

React calmly. Parents and teachers should answer all questions and respond to all comments about body parts and products, but do so calmly so that we don't further fan children's interest in the secret subject of sex with our blushes and distress. If a child interrupts an activity by using body-part words, you can say to him: "Those are interesting words, and we've all heard them. This is not the right time for these words; right now we're reading a story." If the child still persists, you can take him aside and tell him: "You seem really interested in these words. You can say them with me now, so you don't interrupt us at story time when other children are listening to a story." The important thing is to take the wind out of a child's sails without making the words sound exciting or more interesting than they are.

Similarly, if you find children "playing doctor," you should redirect their attention and get them involved in another activity. You can say, for example: "It's time for snack. Please get ready quickly. I'll wait for you and we can sit together." Most child development specialists believe that we should not permit sex play between children. It's too arousing, and young children have no good way of discharging the extreme excitement.

It helps us to react coolly when we know that, in almost all cases, children aren't seeking to consummate a tidal wave of eroticism or developing a pornographic vocabulary. They've probably gone about as far as they're going to go. The force that propels their play isn't uncontrollable passion or incipient sex fiendism. It's just that familiar core of childhood curiosity.

  • Subjects:
    Body Parts, Understanding Self and Others
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