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Sexualization – Early

“My 5-year-old son has a habit that troubles me.”

“He rubs his penis against the adult females that visit. I notice he doesn’t do that to younger children just adult females. I have cautioned, spoken, scolded, all to no avail. The scariest part happened last night. We were playing and he took my hand and started rubbing his penis with it. I was totally shocked and extremely angry. I don’t know how to deal with this. He is my first son and I want him to grow up innocently. I don’t expose him to adult TV, so I really don’t know where he is picking this up from. Please, what do I do? This has been going on since he was almost 4.”

This question troubles me too. This young boy appears to have been “sexualized” much too early.

We are sexual beings from birth: baby boys get erections, infants masturbate. Child psychiatrist Alayne Yates, formerly at the University of Arizona college of Medicine, beautifully describes a nursing baby in her book Sex Without Shame. “The infant is a sensuous being who is capable of experiencing a crescendo of pleasure with each feeding. Triggered by odor, exquisitely responsive to touch, greedy and aggressive, claims his prize and melts into languid slumber.” She points out there is a reason cupid is always portrayed as an infant, “To be in love is to reexperience infancy.”

Nonetheless the work of children is to learn how to grow up to become responsible adults and, when they reach an appropriate age, experience the pleasures of sex. Parents must learn to be both “askable” and comfortable in their role as the child’s first sex educators. And they must teach about sex and handle the child’s early sexuality and curiosity in such a way that the child learns two things: 1) Sex is pleasurable, not shameful 2) Sex is for grownups, not children.

Many young children touch their genitals or masturbate. Parents frequently ask me what to do when their 3 or 4-year-old son “plays with himself” in public. Quietly without making a fuss say, “We don’t do that in public. You can do it in your room.” And start reading the sex education picture book together. It’s important to deal with the child’s curiosity about the body and how sexual organs look and develop in both males and females. It is recommended that if a child does not ask about sex (Where do babies come from? How come I don’t have one?) by age 4 or so, parents should bring up the subject. “Do wonder where babies come from? Let’s look at this book together.” Learn more about what to do with my Sex Ed ParenTip here.

But today’s question is about disturbing incidents that have gone on for many months so the mother’s concern is appropriate. Alas it is not only adult TV that sexualizes our kids way too early. It’s also the rest of TV, TV ads, billboards, magazines, porn an adult might be watching on a computer or cell phone. It is also possible that a woman or girl your son knows could have touched his penis or rubbed him. Of course when a young child does sexual things we always must think about abuse. But using your hand is a bit weird. He saw this somewhere, I bet.

It’s important to set limits. Every time he rubs against another adult female you take him aside and whisper to him, “Don’t do that, we don’t do that in public.” Do it calmly but firmly. If he doesn’t stop remove him from the scene. If he pulls your hand to rub his penis again, quietly tell him, “Don’t do that, Mommy doesn’t want to do that. You can do that to yourself in private.”

He also needs information about sex. This sounds counterintuitive. If you want him to stop using sexual gestures why talk to him about sex? Because such behavior probably means he is curious. Be sure to tell him about good touch like hugs and bad touch like someone touching you in private places. This may solve the problem. However if this does not stop or he starts doing it more often, ask his pediatrician for a referral to a child psychiatrist. If you are really worried call it to the doctor’s attention now.