You and a group of friends have just gathered in your living room. Everyone is relaxed and having a good time. Suddenly, your three-year-old daughter, who had been playing quietly in the corner of the room, straddles her oversized teddy bear and begins to rock rhythmically. The conversation comes to an abrupt halt as your sweet, innocent child’s eyes glaze over and her cheeks flush. She’s clearly in her own little world—while you’re dying of embarrassment in yours. “Looks like somebody is tired!” you proclaim, scooping her up and rushing her from the room, hoping your guests will forget what just happened.
Most parents are shocked to learn that it’s perfectly normal—even common—for young children to explore their bodies, often going so far as to act out what adults would label masturbation. While toddlers and preschoolers don’t have an understanding of sex as it applies to us, they are smart enough to figure out that touching certain parts of their bodies feels good. And to figure out that if touching feels good, touching again and again feels downright great.
So what is a loving parent to do?
“Children at this age are naturally curious and uninhibited,” explains Dr. Carl Arinoldo, MD, a child psychologist and author of Essentials of Smart Parenting: Learning the Fine Art of Managing Your Children. “They’re going to explore, especially their own bodies.” Because children often touch themselves as a comforting mechanism, parents may see it when their children get sleepy or when are in unfamiliar surroundings and feel nervous.
As unsettling as it may be to see your young son stroking his genitals or your daughter furiously rubbing her thighs together, try not to show alarm. Yelling at your child to stop, telling him or her that this behavior is “dirty,” or punishing the behavior only confuses your child and may even cause sexual dysfunction later in life. A child’s sexuality develops much in the same way that motor skills, language, and cognitive ability develop—through experimentation.