My seven-year-old son, Brett and his seven-year-old best friend, Jacqueline, have been engaging in sex play for a few years now. They have a great relationship – they can work out differences, talk to each other about how they feel and they both contribute equally in terms of leading and following. Up until now, their exploration has been bathing together, looking at each other’s genitals, hiding under the covers naked and giggling a lot. So far, it’s felt okay for both families. But lately they’ve been shutting the door, asking for privacy and spending more time naked under the covers. When I walk in the room, they shout indignantly that they want to be left alone. The other day, I asked them what they were doing and they didn’t want to talk about it. Finally, Jacqueline said, “We’re trying to see Brett’s sperm and my eggs.” I believe in healthy exploration and I don’t want to make them feel bad, but I’m not sure anymore how much of this sort of thing is okay. All the grownups involved are starting to feel unsure about what’s okay and what isn’t. What’s normal for kids to do? What guidelines should we set for them?
— concerned dad in Eureka
Most children are curious about their bodies. They want to know how the parts work, what they look like, what they can do, how they change, what feels good, what doesn’t, and how to take care of them. It is important to remember that children’s curiosity about their own bodies and their friends’ bodies is not the same thing as adult sexuality. Even calling this kind of mutual genital exploration “sex play” can be misleading.
There are probably at least three levels of exploration going on for your son and his friend. On one level, they have questions about parts of their bodies they can’t see, but have heard are there. On another level, they are probably curious about what kinds of body exploration is socially acceptable — hence, the closed door and the “go away” stance. Thirdly, they are probably enjoying the sensuality of each other’s bodies.
A concern in some children’s body exploration/sex play is the question of power and boundaries. In relationships where there is not a balance of power, children may “agree” to do things they really don’t want to do. One child may encourage, manipulate or intimidate another child into doing something he or she doesn’t want to do.
In responding to children’s explorations, it is important to address all of these issues, as well as to gather more information about what the children are doing and what they’re trying to learn. Here are some suggestions:
. Ask more questions. In most situations (including the one you describe), we don’t have enough information to figure out how to respond. We don’t know exactly what Brett and Jacqueline were doing to look for sperm and eggs, and it is important to ask. If children aren’t readily answering your questions, you may need to let them know that you understand their curiosity and are open to hear their ideas: “Lots of kids are curious about their bodies. Trying to find sperm and eggs must be an interesting job. How are you doing it?” “You must have a lot of questions about your bodies. What else are you wondering about?” “Tell me more about how you do that?”
When you are gathering information, it’s important not to jump in with too many ideas of your own. If kids feel like you are asking questions just so you can get your own two cents in, they’ll be reluctant to share their ideas with you. (Later, you can share your ideas.)
. Supervision is crucial. Children may not be able to tell you everything they are doing and they may also move from safe to unsafe play (i.e. moving from looking at someone’s vulva to sticking toys inside it), so it is important to check-in regularly with them or to have a “door open” policy. This may be tricky because children often “demand” privacy. However, you need to provide enough supervision that you can ensure children’s safety.
. Figuring out what is normal. You ask about what is normal for this age. Children of this age are most commonly interested in genital exploration, masturbation, and different name for genitals. They’re eager to learn about other people’s bodies and they’re curious about sexual intercourse and where babies come from.
For some children, the sex play of the preschool years drops off when they reach elementary school. For others, it continues in certain relationships. One thing that is important to consider is what percentage of the children’s time together is spent in body exploration/sex play? Normally, children spend a majority of their time engaged in many other kinds of play. Even if they spend most of a couple of play sessions exploring bodies, after the newness wears off, they generally move on to other kinds of play. If children are spending more than a quarter of their time in body exploration/sex play or if they seem “fixated” on it, they may need your help answering some of their questions and finding other activities to enjoy together.
The other aspect of “normal” to consider is whether children have been exposed to inappropriate or hurtful information and/or experiences. Behavioral signs of this might be obsessive interest in sex play or an adult knowledge of sexuality. If you have a concern that your child or your child’s friend has been exposed to inappropriate materials or may have been sexually abused, it is important to talk with the other parent and seek professional help.
In this instance, the example you give of Brett and Jacqueline’s play is indicative of children’s normal, healthy curiosity and exploration.
. Think about what they are trying to figure out. Although children may not be able to tell you all of the things they are curious about, watching their play and listening to their questions will help you assist them in finding the information they are looking for. Jacqueline told you that they were looking for sperm and eggs. This seems like a wonderful opportunity to provide some information. You could ask them more questions to find out what they know and then fill in some of the gaps. You could take them to the library to get some books with pictures and other information about where sperm and ovum are held in the body.
. Think about what you want to teach. As you begin to think about how to respond to your child’s sex exploration, it is important to refer back to what you want your child to learn about his body, his sexuality, and his relationships. This thinking will cover what you learned as a child and which of those things you want to pass on to your child and which you don’t. Examples of things parents have wanted their children to gain in terms of their bodies have included safety, confidence, self-respect, self-knowledge, knowing how to set boundaries, knowing what they want, and pleasure.
. Develop some ground rules for the play. It sounds like Brett and Jacqueline have developed a new level of exploration which is throwing your old rules into question. It would be impossible to know ahead of time what all of the rules for play should be, but as parents we are constantly trying to figure out appropriate ones at each new level. In doing this, it is often helpful to talk to another parent or resource person to explore what your concerns are and what you are comfortable with.
It is essential, also, to keep in good communication with the parent of the other child. Families have very different ideas about sex play and it is important that we know other family’s beliefs when we set up ground rules for play.
. Provide alternatives. Once you have some ideas about what children are trying to do or figure out, you can help them think of other ways of playing and getting information. You can talk to them or help them get books which will provide them with information and answers to their questions. If children are enjoying the sensuality of the play, you could devise some other more structured ways to engage in tactile play. Back rubs and foot massages with lotion or oil are wonderful alternatives.
For information on the symptoms of child sexual abuse, as well as extensive links to resources, check out: http://www.commnet.edu/QVCTC/student/LindaCain/sexabuse.html