A tiny child may seem too young to know about sex, but even at this age their understanding of it is being formed – and parents’ attitudes are crucial to the development of a happy, balanced sexuality.
Sexuality tends to be viewed as something that starts at puberty. It is hard to think of younger children as anything other than sexually ‘neutral’, waiting to ripen into full sexuality when the time is right and they begin to develop physically.
This, however, is not the case. Although we might think of pre-pubertal children as being sexually neutral, we also recognize that it is important for them to learn about sex before they themselves become sexually developed.
We know that children begin to learn about sex from the day they are born – or even earlier. Newborn boys often have erections and ultrasound scans show that they also do so in the womb.
Parents often notice that one of the first areas that a baby begins to explore with interest is the genitals, and it is not long before a baby or toddler could actually be said to be masturbating.
We do not know exactly what a young child is feeling during such behaviour but it is obvious that children play with their genitals instinctively and with pleasure.
All children are inquisitive about the opposite sex, so they should not be told that touching each other’s body is ‘naughty’.
Kisses and cuddles
But sexuality in children is broader than just genital play. All babies need to be cuddled and kissed from birth. Such intimate, reassuring physical touch is an essential part of the process by which parent and child ‘bond’ together. And research has shown that babies who do not have such physical contact may thrive less well than babies who do.
Kisses and cuddles are one thing, but parents often find it hard to cope with a small child masturbating, especially if they themselves grew up in a family in which sex was never talked about.
It is likely that many of us have a memory of being told off for ‘playing with ourselves’ as children, and we may even find ourselves reacting as our parents reacted to us – with shock and anger. But by doing so we are giving our children a very direct message – that it is not right to gain pleasure from our own bodies. So sexual guilt is passed on from generation to generation.
A child’s parents are usually by far his or her most important influence, especially in the early years, so you need to give some thought to the way you respond to such issues as masturbation.
Allowing the children into mum and dad’s bedroom will promote a relaxed and open atmosphere to each other’s body.
This is not always easy to do. Many parents find that it is better to play such issues down. If your child finds out that you are concerned about masturbation, for example, then he or she is quite likely to use it as a means of getting your attention from time to time.
However, it is also worth remembering that persistent masturbation in a young child can be a sign that he or she is unhappy in some way and may indicate that outside help, in the form of counselling, is necessary.
As children grow older, they become more amenable to reason and discussion. So, by the time they reach school age, they should have begun to realise that while they can enjoy their bodies, they do not need to draw everybody’s attention to that fact. It is important that you teach them to strike an even balance between the two.
Child sex abuse
In recent years there has been an increasing focus on child sex abuse. It is vital for all children to learn that they have rights over their own bodies, that they should not be forced – even by adults they know – into doing anything they do not like.
Storks, cabbages or sex?
When your child starts school, he or she will probably have begun to ask questions about sex. Queries such as ‘Where do babies come from?’ are usually stimulated by the imminent arrival of a new baby. To reply that ‘they come with the stork’ is not very helpful.
It is better to be as open and as honest as you can. They will probably take an answer such as ‘Babies grow in their mummy’s tummy’ in a very matter-of-fact way. They are bound to want to know how babies get there in the first place, and to be told that it is done by daddy putting his penis in mummy’s vagina (or whatever words you use in your family) will probably be enough.
Of course the questions will become more complicated and detailed as your child grows older.
Today, most schools offer some type of formal sex education, but its actual nature and content (as well as when and how it is given) will depend on many factors – from which area your child’s school happens to be in, to the style and quality of the teaching available.
Honesty is the best policy when it comes to letting your children know about sex. So, if your child stumbles into your bedroom when you are making love, you should be prepared to answer any questions.
Informal sex education will also take place in the playground, as it always has done and always will. Children are highly curious and, as they grow older, will soon become aware of the importance sex holds in the eyes of adults.
As long as your child is getting honest and open answers from you, and gentle reassurance, playground influences will probably remain as harmless to him or her as a game of kiss chase.
Your children, however, may not want to discuss sex with you, especially as they approach puberty. At this stage – and it can even start at seven or eight – a child may well begin to feel that he or she wants some privacy. For example, your daughter may not want her father barging into the bathroom while she is in there, or your son may not want to have baths with or undress in front of his little sister any more.
It is important to let your child do with his or her body what he or she wants. Such reticence is a necessary part of growing up and should be respected.
Looming on the horizon before your ten-year-old child is puberty, and with it an enormous amount of change and development, as well as no uncertain amount of disruption and anxiety.
However, by laying down good foundations in the years leading up to this, you will have created an atmosphere in which becoming a sexual adult is some thing to be welcomed and enjoyed rather than approached with uncertainty and fear.