Normal Child Sexual Behavior: Ages 0-7

by Sheri_Oz

Sexuality is a normal part of human life from birth to old age. The meaning of sexuality changes over the life cycle, however, and it is important to understand these differences

Adults need to recognize that children are curious about their bodies in the same way that they are curious about just about everything else in this world.

It is helpful if parents think carefully about the kind of sexuality education they want to provide their children and learn enough about it to be able to talk openly and confidently about this subject that embarrasses just about every person in the world

Childhood Sexual Curiousity Does Not Equal Interest in Sex

We adults sometimes get mixed up between sexual organs and sex. Children do not.

Babies and toddlers, for example, are very interested in their bodies and in sensations derived from touch. Even though they may laugh and enjoy the touch to their genitals that occurs naturally when bathing them or changing their diapers, this does not mean that young children want sex as adults use that word.

Similarly, the fact that an infant boy may get an erection does not mean that he experiences the erection sexually as does a grown man.

When young children undress together and look at each others genitals, this is usually not a sexual activity in adult terms. It is childhood curiosity. It only becomes problematic when physical or emotional coercion and shame are involved. Then it is still not "sex" but "abuse" or "sexual bullying".

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Normal Versus Pathological Childhood Sexual Play

Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between normal sexual play and pathological sexual play. But if we use the proper words to describe the activity, then it may be easier for us to tell the

As described above for infants, a child's curiosity about the human body is not sexual in the sense that adult interest in the human body can be.

Abusive or pathological behaviour is not sexual for either adults or children. Rape is violence committed using the sex organs - it is not sexual behaviour. Similarly, sexual abuse of minors is violence using the sex organs or sexual response as weapons; it is not sexual behaviour. This is true even where no pain or physical aggression is applied.

Keeping this in mind should make it easier for us to see the differences between childhood behaviour focused on curiousity and exploration in contrast with childhood behaviour that has control as its main feature.

Characterizing Normal Childhood Sexual Behaviors

The curious child is not obsessive about the behaviour and stops when asked to unless he or she is deliberately trying to irritate the adult (just like for nonsexual behavior).

The curious child explores many aspects of life and is not focused mainly on sexual themes.

The curious child asks questions when given the opportunity and does not hide his or her interest with excessive shame or secretive behaviours.

Characterizing Problematic Childhood Sexual Behaviors

The child exhibits sexual behavior or sexual knowledge that is inappropriate for his or her age.

The child compulsively continues to engage in a behavior even after having been told it is inappropriate (for example, masturbating in public, french kissing others)

The child lies about his or her behavior or interests.

The child force others to do things against their will.

But Let's Not Lose Perspective

When you open a door and see your child playing "house", "doctor" or "you show me and I'll show you", do not fly into a frenzy. Calmly tell the children to dress and come out to the kitchen. Offer the kids something to snack on and talk with them about curiousity and modesty (modesty here refers to showing respect for our bodies and not modesty that means "humility").

Laugh with them and share with them how nobody really feels comfortable talking about naked bodies. When they ask "why", answer them honestly with a "I don't know". Unless, of course, you want to go into a lengthy philosophical discussion about the history of humanity's relationship with the human body.

Tell them that you are happy to answer any of their questions - and suggest to children who are not your own that they speak with their own parents. You do not know what their attitude is and you should leave children's sex education to their own parents unless you have permission otherwise.

And if the Behavior Seems Not Quite Right (or Worse)?

Are you disturbed by a behavior you see either in your own child or another child?  Do you wonder if it constitutes a symptom of problems that require professional help?

Even in such a situation, you are best to respond as you would to normal childhood sexual play. You will have time after the children are busy with something else to think about what you saw, to speak with someone you trust or to consult with a professional.

If the sexual behavior is truly pathological, then the child should get professional help. However, if the troubled child is not your own, you cannot force the parent to pay attention. In this case, you may be well advised to report the situation to a child protection social worker who, hopefully, will know how to handle the situation diplomatically and sensibly.

If the troubled child is a friend of your son or daughter, then make sure they are together in supervised play only and do not let your child go to his or her house alone.

Updated: 12/21/2014, Sheri_Oz
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Sheri_Oz on 12/09/2013

No problem, Sat - you can write to me using my private message button on my profile page.

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