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Promoting healthy sexual development in pre-school children

EXCLUSIVE - The Freda Briggs Parenting Series

Freda Briggs - Emeritus Professor in Child Development
for | 12 February 2012

Stock Photo

Children are naturally curious about their bodies

Boys are fascinated by their genitals because they protrude, are elastic and make pleasurable playthings. Watching our reactions, children gradually learn what is expected of them as males or females. By the age of 3 they may show interest in other people’s genitals and how others use toilets. Before they start school, girls may try to use the toilet standing up just like dad or their brothers. There are books to use with the youngest children going through this stage of development; eg. My Potty Book for Boys by Andrea Pinnington. Sensitive photos show boys following the potty-training process, teaching teddies what to do. The book emphasises praise for success.

With the development of language, 3-5 year olds may ask questions about how they came to be in mummy’s tummy. When girls see dad naked, they wonder why they don’t have a penis.

From the start, give your child the correct names for their genitals: penis and scrotum being preferable to silly names such as “John Henry”, “Peepee”, “Tossy”, ”Noodle” etc. Girls need the word vagina too because children need the correct vocabulary to be understood if they have concerns about inappropriate touching, especially when outside the home. The internet shows that there are more than 20 different names in common use for penis. Would a busy teacher pay attention if your son said, “Someone touched my tossy”?

Introduce the word private and ensure that your child knows that it means “Don’t touch..its mine”..”Keep out.. its special”and “Ďt’s my body and it belongs to me”. When children are capable of washing themselves, tell them that they as they are growing up, they can now take responsibility for washing and drying the private parts of their bodies. .. that it’s OK for them to touch those parts in their private bedrooms or bathrooms but we don’t do it when other people are around. Why? Because we have to take good care of them.

Because young children are often used to provide oral sex for adults and older kids, make sure that the mouth is included as a private place. No-one is allowed to put anything yucky or stinky in your mouth. Discuss how we have to take good care of our mouths. Emphasise that breasts and bottoms and mouths are all private special places that we have to look after. With pre-school children, this is a good time to read Family Planning Queensland’s Ëverybody’s got a bottom” obtainable on-line. Jenny Hessell’s “Whats wrong with bottoms”is for slightly older children and is probably still available from libraries and the internet. Ensure that your child knows that you are approachable and can talk about these things.

Masturbation is normal when it is occasional. Emotionally disturbed and sexually abused children may masturbate for comfort so be concerned and seek professional advice if the behaviour becomes obsessive. Ask who showed them how to play that game. If they say that it was an adult or older child, contact your child abuse helpline or police. Scolding or punishing will not stop masturbation but will cause shame and send the behaviour underground. Accept that it feels nice and suggest that they do it when they are alone in their bedroom.

Develop a positive self-image by emphasising that we are all different. Play games that draw attention to body parts such as Simon says, the Hokey Pokey, One finger one thumb. Help your child to make a book, showing how we take care of our bodies. Identify the different jobs that bodies do. Use cut out body shapes to dress/undress.

For further assistance, see "Smart Parenting for Safer Kids" by Freda Briggs, available from JoJo Publishers, Melbourne, bookshops or the internet.

...and stay tuned for next week's release of part two of this topic - "Encouraging healthy sexual development in 5-8 year olds"

Freda Briggs
Emeritus Professor in Child Development

Smart Parenting for Safer Kids

Dr Freda Briggs AO is Emeritus Professor in Child Development at the University of South Australia and author of "Smart Parenting for Safer Kids". "Smart Parenting for Safer Kids", reviewed by here, gives tips on keeping children safe in a wide range of situations from cyber space and sexual abuse to bullying. The book is available in all good bookstores and can be ordered by phone on 03 9681 7275 or online at JoJo Publishing
You can read more of Freda Briggs's Profile here.

This article may not be reprinted, reproduced, or retransmitted in whole or in part without the express written consent of The views of the author are not necessarily representative of those of This article contains only general information, correct at the date of publication. For advice regarding your own personal circumstances, always seek individual advice from a qualified professional. Read the full Disclaimer here

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