For most parents, getting their five-year old on the school bus is enough of a wake-up call that their child is growing up, so it’s understandable that recognizing sexuality as a topic of the child’s interest, if not curiosity, is a subject that most parents postpone. However, at some recess of your mind, you know that sexuality is part of everyone’s life. Learning how to communicate in a positive, caring, loving, and natural way about sexuality builds your child’s natural curiosity for self-awareness and confidence. If you’re feeling a bit uncomfortable with the idea of this talk, remember that you can be playful with this subject; and keep in mind that the five-year old brain of sexuality is not your thirty-year old brain, so your child’s needs and issues are quite different than your own.
How children are exposed to touch and hygiene have important effects later in life. If you catch your children playing doctor, don’t be alarmed. Children sometimes see each other as opportunities for satisfying their curiosities about their body. However, you will want to set clear limits regarding privacy, boundaries, and appropriate play. Although curiosity is natural, touching another person’s genitals is unacceptable because it invades that person’s privacy and is not permitted. If such a situation occurs between your child and someone else’s, you will want to call the child’s parents to inform them. However, it would not be wise to startle, frighten, or scare children who are exploring, though you should talk with your child soon afterward to make it clear that they shouldn’t be touching anyone’s genitals but their own.
Kids feel more secure at this age moving away from home base—but not too far. We have to be sensitive to their attachments and neither smother them nor presume that they don’t need an embrace just because they don’t ask for one. In fact, sometimes your 4- or 5-year old will say that they are “in love” with you and “want to marry” you. They glow in your presence or when you arrive. While these are well-deserved kudos for good parenting, we have to keep in mind that our kids need to find a balance between dependency and independency.
What can I expect of my preschooler and kindergartner?
• Interested in the functions of her or his body parts.
• Not embarrassed about sexual topics.
• May self-stimulate genitals or grasp genitals for comfort when upset.
• Need guidance regarding boundaries.
• Deserve privacy and respect.
• Fall “in love” with both parents; may express the desire to marry you!
• Ripe to learn good manners and recognize how positive behaviors build trusting relationships.
With preschoolers and kindergartners, do not:
• Criticize curious behavior when you want to establish that an act is inappropriate. For example, if your child touches his or her genitals in public, give clear directions or a previously agreed upon signal rather than criticizing or scolding.
• Limit children’s play to gender-specific choices.
• Judge people whose values and lifestyles are different—whether they are in single-parent families, divorced, or of a different religion or sexual orientation.
• Allow free access to unsupervised television or the Internet.
• Discuss birth by taking out your child’s baby pictures and looking at ultrasound images to review his or her pregnancy and development in the womb.
• Encourage qualities that strengthen friendships: guide relationships by discussing what makes good friends and serve as a role model so that your kids develop behaviors that build healthy relationships, such as good manners, respect, kindness.
• Identify different traditions and types of family structures so that your child recognizes that families have many variations, and though differences exist, all people are valuable and require respect and care. For example, help your child to understand that there are different religions and beliefs about the world and that each tradition teaches important lessons about life and relationships—and that each value family and nurturing love. Make the point that by approaching others in a positive manner that they will likely establish an excellent foundation for friendship.
You want to make a link between their growing world and your own talks about sexuality—particularly because sexual information learned outside might be otherwise taken by kids as secretive if it is not also addressed at home. You want to show that you understand sexuality as natural and support them so they feel comfortable with it. Taking time to explain reproduction with pets and all living species, as observed in nature and at zoos, provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the process of the life cycle shared by all living creatures.
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 that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.