By John T. Chirban
Sexuality begins in the womb because it starts with touch. After birth, being held and caressed mark the earliest connection that infants have with intimacy and love. These connections come directly from you and set the stage for your child’s comfort with his or her body.
We all seek touch. Studies confirm that we are healthier when we are touched, hugged, tickled, and massaged.1 When infants are touched in a loving and appropriate way, they learn to touch their own body in ways that are healthful and pleasurable. This wholesome model of touch continues throughout their development.
If ever there was an easy and welcome opportunity to pursue touch, it’s through the many tickling and hugging opportunities that arise during childhood. Permit yourself to celebrate these wonderful moments with your kids.
Kids are like sponges—they learn about our feelings toward sexuality through our words, actions, and interactions. The way that you relate to your child’s body shows your level of comfort with your child and with sex.
A natural springboard for starting conversations with your kids about sexuality emerges from developing good hygiene. Helping your children relate to their body through caring for their body teaches ownership and awareness of sexuality. Cleaning privates is an important topic in its own right, and these conversations introduce discussions about sex, from naming body parts accurately to establishing boundaries.
How do you handle children’s jokes about going to the bathroom? What’s your reaction to your toddler seeing you naked? How do you respond when other adults bring up sex in the presence of your child? Early parent-child interactions establish your child’s introduction to understanding and sex. Your cues set your child’s comfort level for talking to you about sexual issues. Kids develop (or fail to develop) comfort about their sexuality through exploration, play, interactions, and relationships. By opening these avenues in your relationships with your children and helping them understand their experiences, you help form their confidence to understand sexuality and themselves.
You should talk to your child as early as you can about proper and improper touch and explain that her or his body is under her or his control. Explain the necessity of telling you or a responsible adult if they ever feel uncomfortable about the way someone touches them.
BIRTH – 3 years old
• A Provide loving, caring interactions (tickle, hug, kiss).
• B) Recognize, acknowledge (name), and support body exploration, especially during hygiene and toilet training
• C) Monitor social exposure and models--from TV to personal contacts (babysitters, friends, family)
• A) Shame because of what child does or says sexually
• B) Reference what child does sexually as "funny" or "bad"
• C) Project adult behaviors onto infant, e.g., baby boy touching mother's breast: "He's his father's son."
1. Lynn Barnett, “Keep in Touch: The Importance of Touch in Infant Development,” Infant Observation 8 (2005): 115–123.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex (Thomas Nelson, 2012) that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information, go to dr.chirban.com and sexual problems.com.