Does your child seem fascinated with genitals – both his own and other people’s? Don’t worry: according to experts, his interest is a normal part of his development.
Why the interest?
Masturbation is a common childhood habit that starts early.
“Babies naturally explore their bodies and if something feels pleasurable, they want to repeat it,” says Viviane Green, child psychotherapist at London’s Anna Freud Centre.
“Young children also masturbate as a source of comfort, much like thumb-sucking, so you might find them doing it when they’re tired or anxious.”
During toilet training, youngsters become more aware of their genitals and how they differ from the opposite sex, particularly if they have an opposite-sex sibling. This can have amusing consequences.
“Adelaide refused to sit on the toilet to wee – she kept saying, ‘Mackenzie doesn’t sit down, so why should I?’ It was only after several weeks of trying, unsuccessfully, to wee standing up that she realised copying her brother was a non-starter,” recalls Anna, mum to Mackenzie, 5, and Adelaide, 3½.
While some little girls wish they had a willy, others, like Chloe, 5, definitely do not.
“Chloe’s very happy to be different from her three brothers, but doesn’t like them teasing her about it and already values her privacy,” says Emily, Chloe’s mum.
Once they can talk, children have no qualms about commenting on people’s body parts – even if their observations aren’t complimentary.
“When Lacey was 2½ she went up to her nursery teacher, pressed her bosoms and said, ‘Why have you got flat boobies? My mummy doesn’t have flat boobies,’” admits Lacey’s mum, Samantha.
“Fortunately, the teacher saw the funny side and proceeded to explain to the class that people – and their boobies – come in all shapes and sizes.”
Comparing private parts is a favourite activity of many young children, particularly from around the age of 4, when curiosity about other people’s bodies really kicks in.
“Alfie, my 5 year old, is the only uncircumcised boy in his class. When a friend and her son (also uncircumcised) came to stay, I heard Alfie, who’d kindly taken 3-year-old Jake to the toilet, exclaim, ‘Hey, you haven’t got a Jewish willy either.’ I also recently found Alfie and his mate with their trousers down showing each other their bottoms,” says Alfie’s mum, Becky.
Apparently this is all quite normal. “Little kids love taking their clothes off, and most of the time it’s harmless. Obviously, if the game is getting rough or a child isn’t enjoying it, you should intervene,” says Viviane Green.
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Great, so knowing our kids are having the odd fiddle is nothing to worry about. But what if they happen to be doing it in public?
Suzie Hayman, spokesperson for Parentline Plus, a national charity that works for and with parents, believes the worst thing you can do if a child is masturbating is tell him off.
“Telling a child that his genitals are something to be ashamed of can affect how he feels about himself later. I’ve seen lots of adults who think of themselves as disgusting because of negative messages they received as children,” Suzie says.
But surely, as far as playing with one’s privates is concerned, there’s a time and a place, even when you’re 2 years old?
“Yes,” says Suzie, “and we need to teach our children that – we just have to do it in the right way. Explain that touching your body is fine, but it’s something people do when they’re alone. Distract younger children with a toy or give them something else they can do with their hands. Never tell them it’s wrong,” she advises.
But in practice it’s not always that simple. “Taylor was playing with himself one day as my mum was about to walk in. Knowing she’d disapprove, I asked him to stop. But he just said, “Why? It feels nice,”’ laughs Siobhan, mum to Taylor, aged 5.
“The problem for some parents is that they, themselves, grew up in an atmosphere in which masturbation was frowned upon, so they panic when they see their own children doing it, says Suzie.
“It’s important to stay calm. If you react strongly you’re giving your child the impression he’s done something wrong and you’re also giving him lots of attention, which might make him do it more.”
Honesty is the best policy
Experts stress that how we respond to our children when they’re young will determine whether or not they feel able to talk to us about sex and body parts later.
Dr Polly Carmichael, consultant clinical psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, believes we shouldn’t make a big deal of these matters.
“Let children know that talking about genitals is fine – they’re just another part of the body. And reassure them that everyone is different – kids can get very anxious about this,’ Polly says.
Using pet names for genitals can be helpful, although experts recommend we also teach toddlers the correct ones.
Mum Jacqui taught 6-year-old Emilia the word vagina early on and got more than she bargained for. “For weeks it was Emilia’s favourite word – I even heard her telling her dolls about their vaginas. Luckily, she eventually lost interest,” Jacqui recalls.
Cause for concern?
So as parents we should lighten up about kids and genitals. But is there ever a time when a child’s fascination with them could be a cause for concern?
“If a little one is masturbating constantly, there might be something going on in his life that’s causing him anxiety,” says Polly Carmichael. “If a youngster seems overly sexualised – if he’s trying to copy adult sexual acts or using adult language – he may have been exposed to something inappropriate. If you’re worried, keep an eye on him or talk to your GP or health visitor.”
Such cases, however, are the exception. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, young children fiddling with their genitals is entirely normal and as they get older, most do it less or in private.
“When I asked my son once why he was playing with his willy he replied, ‘Because it’s fun.’ And who can argue with that?”