The transition from baby to big kid comes with it a whole slew of new topics that send families scrambling for that mythical parenting instruction manual. Some of the biggies that red-faced parents wonder: What's normal when it comes to sexual development (and interest!) for kids under two? How should you respond when you see your very young child, well, masturbating? First, keep these age-specific concepts in mind.
Toddlers will normally explore their bodies—including their genital areas—during bath time or diaper changes. It's common (and OK!) for young children to touch or rub their own genitals, as they are gathering information about their bodies. And many toddlers enjoy being naked—some experts even recommend clothes-free time when potty training begins.
Primarily, all this touchy-feely activity is simply body exploration for toddlers, and it does not have the same meaning as it would for adults. And now is the time to start teaching where this is socially acceptable (as in home vs. in the check-out line).
What They Understand
Young toddlers are in information-gathering mode: Their bodies, like the world around them, are fascinating places to learn more about: "What does this part do?" "How can I control it?" "What does it feel like?" It's no wonder that bodily functions seem fascinating right now—or why so many families have stories of children playing not only with themselves, but what comes out of them!
Young children are curious about the differences between girl and boy bodies. During her first year (around week 39), your child learned how to categorize objects; now as a toddler, that ability to identify and understand differences is being honed.
Also, kids around 24 months understand that certain sensations feel good and may be calming, so self-genital stimulation is not unusual at this age. Note, though, that now a child's body will also react reflexively, so you may notice erections in male children. (They do understand the reactions of the adults, so be careful not to overreact to normal exploration. See What to Do, below.)
What to Say
Specific conversations will depend on your family's beliefs and what you know about your own child. As toddlers learn about all parts of the body, it is important that they learn the correct words for their genitals. You can talk about all parts of the body matter-of-factly (and without confusing nicknames), and let your child know that what he or she is doing really is OK by you—but you can begin the lesson on social norms about public and private space.
Remember, there is no one right way to have these sorts of sticky conversations, but here is a place to start:
It's OK for you to want to touch your penis, but that's something we do at home, not in the grocery store…
When your little guy enters the preschool years, you can discuss the ideas of privacy, body safety, and more details on where it is appropriate to explore their bodies (ie., bedroom or bathroom). Of course, until that time, there might be inopportune moments—at the pizza shop, at a family reunion—when she's eager to see what's new with her body. At these times, you can either ignore the behavior or get your little one involved in doing something else. Redirection is a great tactic with toddlers!
What to Do
Again, keep in mind: Body curiosity in toddlers just doesn't mean what it does for adults. So don't let your child's self-exploration change the way you show him love and affection: Your actions are his blueprint for the healthy expression of love and physical closeness.
How else can you respond to this touching?
Relax! Don't be overly punitive or harsh with your toddler about their explorations. Such curiosity is perfectly normal, and being strongly reactive can induce shame in your child. If you have concerns, talk with another parent or consider consultation with a professional (see below).
Watch your reactions. Remember, young kids are reinforced by the reactions of those around them—swearing is another prime example of this. If you think their streaking is funny, don't be surprised if they try it out with company!
Get professional insight. If you are concerned in any way about your child's behavior, talk with your pediatrician. She will be able to give you a sense if your child's actions are within normal limits. As embarrassing as you may find it to confide about, he or she is used to these types of questions!