Your Child's Sexuality: Development & Communication

By Ann Barrett, B.Sc. on March 15, 2007
Sexuality is much more than sex. It includes our sense of who we are and how we feel about ourselves as sexual beings.

Our children start the lifelong process of learning about their sexuality as soon as they are born. The loving touches you give your baby teach that the body is good and that it also is a source of pleasure. When you name the genitals, the penis or the vulva, your child learns that this part of the body is just as important as the rest of the body. When you change diapers in a matter-of-fact way, the lesson learned is that the area between the legs is not a part of the body to be treated with disgust or as dirty.

As children grow, they learn about sexuality from many sources, including friends, the media and society in general. However, you lay the foundation for how your child will feel by your attitudes and values.

Important: Many of the actual words you use will not be remembered. What will be remembered is the tone you used and the feelings you conveyed.

Remember that a child's understanding of sexuality is different from our adult perspective. Most of us grew up in families and in a society that gave us mixed messages about sex.

  • What messages did you get about your body?
  • How comfortable were family members with the topic and what was their basic message about sex?
  • Were boys and girls taught the same messages about sexuality?
  • What did your family tell and show you about showing love, about relationships, about being affectionate, about feeling sexual pleasure and about being responsible?

The messages you learned will affect how comfortable you feel about starting to teach your own child about sexuality. Small children don't yet have a history of learning that sex is good or bad or of knowing that there are many confusing feelings and attitudes about this subject. Decide what messages you want to give in order to help your child develop as a lovable, capable and responsible sexual being.

Normal Sexual Development
The following, based on studies of children, is an outline of sexual behaviours that are normal or common. This does not mean that all children do these things, or that there is something wrong with a child who does not do them, or even that a child will do them within these time frames. However, it gives us a reference point.

Birth to Age Two
  • Experiences pleasure from touch to all parts of the body, including from the genitals. As a baby grows, baby gets enjoyment in touching and playing with the penis or vulva.
Memo: Ultrasounds show that boys have erections while in their mother's uterus. Boys have erections and girls secrete lubrication in their vagina shortly after birth and throughout their life if other factors don't inhibit these natural responses.
  • May experience orgasm. Some babies have been observed building up a physical tension and then completely relaxing after rubbing their genital area against a toy or blanket. The physical pleasure is obvious to the adults who observe the behaviour, but there is no suggestion that the feelings are accompanied by erotic thoughts.
  • Begins to develop an attitude, either positive or negative, towards their own body. If you treat toileting and the genital area with comfort, your child will feel positive about this part of the body. If you react with disgust while changing diapers, the lesson that is learned is that there is something bad about this area.
  • Learns expected behaviours for boys and girls. We reinforce our children as they do things we feel are appropriate - sometimes without recognizing the stereotypes we perpetuate. "Well, aren't you the strong young man." "What a little tease you are in your frilly dress."
  • Isn't aware of being a boy or girl until around 18 months of age. After this age, children start to learn their gender by the way they are labeled. ("You're a girl, just like mommy.") They also observe that they have bodies like people of their gender, such as their mother or aunt, father or brother.
Age Three to Four
  • Is curious about gender and body differences. ("Why is daddy's penis bigger than mine?") Children will look at and touch the breasts and genital areas of familiar adults, partially out of curiosity and sometimes in teasing if there is an opportunity to do so.
  • Likes self-pleasuring (masturbation). Most children will caress their vulva or penis area, sometimes deliberately to get the nice feelings, sometimes unconsciously when watching television, listening to a story or when anxious.
  • Will engage in sex play with friends and siblings of the same or opposite sex. Children play house or doctor and include examination of genitals as part of curiosity play.
Memo: Children mimic adult sexual behaviour. In play, they will imitate what they see in the family or from sources such as television programs.
  • Learns sex words. Children have fun with bathroom terms and swear words they hear and will repeat them to the delight of their friends and the frustration of their parents.
  • Establishes a firm internal belief about being either male or female. This can be the time when your child insists on certain behaviour, such as a daughter refusing to wear pants because she has concluded that girls wear dresses and she is a girl (even if mom wears pants).
  • Is curious about their origins. "Where did I come from?" Your child will probably be satisfied with simple answers at this stage. "You grew in a special place called a uterus inside my body/inside your mother's body."
Age Five to Eight
  • Learns what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behaviour to adults and which adults are comfortable with this subject.
  • Uses language to tease, shock, joke or impress their friends. Help your child understand that some words, even used in fun, can hurt or offend people.
Important: Your child may repeat a word that has been heard without having any idea of its meaning. Explain what language is acceptable and not acceptable to you. Remember not to use language you don't want your child to use.
  • Continues sex play. Children learn that if parents do not approve of this activity, they either will avoid it or engage in it when they feel they won't get caught.
  • Continues self-pleasuring (masturbation). At this age, your child learns from your reaction that this is either something that should not be done or that it is fine to do it in private. If the latter is the case, parents must be clear about what places you regard as private. Most children need repeated reminders that they are not to masturbate in public.
  • May become modest. Some children are still comfortable wandering around nude or bathing with younger brothers or sisters, but others will cover up and want privacy. The rest of the family should respect these changing feelings without comment. If it is necessary to invade this privacy to see, for example, if there is an infection, explain why you have to do this.
  • Shows a strong interest in male/female roles that are often stereotyped - no matter how hard you have worked to teach that there are not fixed roles for each gender.
  • Is affected by external influences. Your child learns to read, becomes more independent and is exposed to a range of ideas. You can help sort out the confusion as well as teach your values when you talk about sexuality.
Age Nine to 10
  • Continues sex play. Studies show that over half of all adults remember participating in non-coercive sex play with friends or siblings, with the greatest frequency in these pre-pubertal years. This activity is done with children of the same sex and/or the opposite sex and is done in places that avoid the attention of adults.
  • Continues self-pleasuring (masturbation). By this age, your child is very aware that this is a private act. Some children report strong feelings of pleasure but others feel disgusted by the idea of touching themselves in this way.
  • Seeks out same-sex peer groups and is ambivalent about the opposite sex. Teasing and taunting are common. Sex role stereotypes can be very strong. "Girls can't play football. They're weak." "Boys are dumb."
Important: The importance of peers is increasing for this age group, but parents remain a major source of values. What you say and do really counts.
  • Shows signs of puberty. For some children, early signs of puberty may appear, such as some breast swelling and an increase in the size of the testicles. A small number of girls will experience many body changes and start their period.
  • Becomes more modest and wants privacy (if this has not already happened at an earlier age).
  • Tunes in to external influences. Your child is getting messages about sex from many sources: commercials on billboards; advertising on TV and in magazines; television sitcoms, cartoons and the news; explicit pictures in pornographic magazines; video games that have strangers stalking women; a classmate relating details of a movie on a late night channel showing naked people doing "strange things" together. Children can come across sexual material on the Internet, even if they are not looking for it.
  • Has fantasies, daydreams and crushes on favourite teachers, older teens and adults or media idols.
  • Is curious about their world, including sexuality. At this age, they approach sexuality information in a direct and scientific manner. "If a man is changed into a woman, can she have a baby?" "How does the sperm know how to find the egg?" "Can they cure AIDS?" "Why are some people gay?"
Sex Play & Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse is one of the most difficult topics to explain to children. You want your child to be aware of the problem and how to deal with it - but you also don't want the child to be frightened of desirable touch.

Most sex play is normal. Children do it because they are curious, it is fun or they are imitating what they think adults do. This play usually takes place between children of a similar age where both of them (or all of them) are willing participants.

When an older, more powerful child or adult forces a child to engage in sexual activity, this is not sex play. It is sexual abuse.
Incorporate talk about touch that is positive and touch that is not acceptable into your discussions about sexuality.

Play "What would you do if..." games to help your child recognize potentially abusive situations. Because most people who abuse children are people children know, include examples such as: "What would you do if someone who lives on our street...someone in our family...someone who is babysitting..."

If sex talk is natural in your family, your child will feel comfortable in telling you about situations that might indicate abuse.

Communicate With Your Child

There may be times when you feel uncertain about how to answer a question, how much information to provide or when to start talking about this sensitive subject.

Here are some suggestions:
  • Start talking to your child about this early. "You're a wonderful baby boy. You have a nose, two eyes and a penis." Even if you are uncomfortable, it is important to avoid making your child feel ashamed about their genitals.
  • Treat sexual subjects as naturally as you do other subjects. "Oh, look - there's a dog." "Oh, look - that lady is going to have a baby. It is growing in her uterus." Of course, your 2-year-old will not understand female anatomy, but it will help you learn to say things comfortably.
  • Remember that teaching about sexuality involves more than giving facts. As a parent, your job is to help your children learn the values and feelings you feel will help them become healthy adults.
  • Be aware that some children ask all kinds of questions, while other children aren't question-askers. You might read a book about babies to your child. Other everyday opportunities for discussion are:
    - when giving a bath
    - when you see a pregnant woman
    - when you see dogs or birds mating
  • Keep the information simple, adding detail as your child grows older. Ask for feedback to determine what has been understood.
  • Be honest. If you tell your preschooler that babies are brought by the angels, sooner or later your child will learn that you didn't tell the truth.
  • Talk to your partner about how you are going to deal with situations. Talk to other moms and dads about how they deal with challenging questions.
  • Read to your child. There are good books on sexual topics written for children as well as good books for parents on how to talk about the subject.
  • Say you don't know the answer to a question if that's the case or if you need time to think about an answer or if you simply feel uncomfortable talking about something.
  • Try again, if you aren't satisfied with the information you gave or the way you handled a situation.
  • Be aware of what your child is looking at on the Internet. Teach safety rules and keep the computer in a public spot in your home.
Important: Don't jump to conclusions. If your 9-year-old asks about oral sex, don't presume that he has or wants to try it. These days, children hear about all kinds of things that many of their parents didn't learn about until much later.

If you want to use proper names for genitals but feel uncomfortable with the terms, turn up your radio very loud and say, "Penis, penis, penis, penis, penis...." It isn't always easy talking about sexuality with your children, but it is our job to make sure they are informed. BCCE Recomended Reading
From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children. Newmarket Press.
More Speaking of SEX: Are You Ready to Answer the Questions Your Kids Will Ask? by Meg Hickling, Northstone Publishing.

To Read To Children
Boys, Girls and Body Science, by Meg Hickling, Harbour Publishing.
Did the Sun Shine Before You Were Born? by S. and J. Gordon, Prometheus Books.
The Bare Naked Book, by Kathy Stinson, Annick Press, 1986.

Parent Helpline
Parent Helpline is a free, confidential, national service. Parents can talk to professionals or access recorded messages that address common issues, including sexuality.

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