When adults discover children engaging in sexual play or behavior, typically their first instinct is to shout an irate scolding while steam belches from their ears, before giving them a punishment they’ll never forget. This, however, is the worst possible way you could react, for several reasons:
Sexual exploration is a developmentally normal aspect of childhood. We should not be punishing children for natural behavior any more than we’d whip a dog for barking.
Such reactions put children at greater risk for legitimate abuse in the future. After all, if they learn that you’re going to react to their sexual activities in an irate fashion like this, followed by severe punishment, what’s going to happen if somewhere down the line someone is doing something to them they don’t like? Will they be able to confide in you, or will they work just as hard as any molester does to keep it a secret , fearful that you’re going to get angry and upset? When parents react poorly to a child’s sexual behavior, it places a wall between them and their child related to all sexual matters in the future.
- Harsh or irate reactions aren’t just unwise, they can be downright abusive. Punishing or humiliating a child for their sexual inclinations can give kids guilt complexes that are every bit as damaging as sexual abuse of the physical variety might be.(See our page on how sexual repression creates psychological disturbances in children. This can lead to mental disorders or distortions in their sexual development. As Dr. Lester Kirkendall notes, “The common idea that fondling of genitals or sexual explorations in infants or small children will lead to later dangers and uncontrollable sexual practices is quite erroneous. However, the anxieties created by adult reactions may lead to the very kind of s_x practices which the parents fear.” (Rubin & Kirkendall, 1970, p. 20)
What to do if you catch your child engaging in sexual behavior
“Every psychiatrist knows that most sex play among children fortunately never comes to the attention of adults, and therefore no harm results. If we do become aware that our child is masturbating or involved in sex play with others, our wisest course is to act as if we were unaware of it. No harm can come from [it] unless we create conflicts.” -Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs, M.D, & Vicki Soltz, R.N. (1964, pp. 276-77)
Most childhood sexual behavior is perfectly harmless so long as adults don’t make a big fuss over it. In fact, the biggest threat comes not from anything children might experience, but from the shame and psychological turmoil adults might dish out responding to these experiences. So when it comes to solo behavior or “in house” s_x play between siblings, your best course of action is to ignore it and leave them be, or to create a distraction without humiliating them in the process.
If, however, you’re a teacher who discovers sex play between children, or a parent who discovers your child engaged in sex play with an unrelated child, social hysteria has made more casual responses untenable. Yet you still need to react in a calm and measured fashion. Here are some suggestions:
1. If the kids aren’t aware you’re watching, consider retreating and creating a distraction so as to disrupt what is going on without the added embarrassment of barging in on them in the act. Knock on the door, or call a child out to see you. Then proceed to step 2.
2. Engage them in a discussion by asking the kids what they were doing. What do they call that game? What prompted this? What did they learn? Do they know what they were doing, or were they just fooling around? Was everyone having fun? Do they have any questions? You want to gain some insight into what prompted this exploration, and you can’t get that if you come at them with the “bad cop” routine.
3. Let them know that it’s perfectly natural to be curious about such things, and that such behavior isn’t bad per se. But it’s something that violates our social norms, much like belching in public. Therefore…A) It might upset other parents; B) It’s not something kids should be doing; C) It’s an activity best saved for someone special when they’re older; or whatever else comes to mind. You can mold whatever guidance you offer to your own personal beliefs, but it should always emphasize that any wrongfulness resides in social codes or the circumstances in which it occurs, not the behavior itself.
4. Offer to help them satisfy their curiosity in other ways. Now is a good time to invite any and all questions they have on the topic, or to get them books to explain things.
Let them know they can always come to talk to you about such things.
5. Call the other parent to let them know what you discovered. State that you’re not upset and that you don’t think it’s anything to fuss about, but that you wanted to give them this courtesy call because you feel it’s something they should be aware of. If you set a calm, reasoned tone in your conversation, they’re likely to follow suit. Please refer them to this online information so that they can gain a more rational perspective on this developmentally normal behavior.
6. DO NOT punish your child for sexual play, especially if this is the first time you’ve observed it. When parents punish children for sexual play, it teaches them to hide all such matters from you in the future.
If you already reacted in a hysterical fashion
Chances are you reached this page AFTER you discovered children in the act, and quite possibly after having reacted rather poorly. If this is the case, there’s no need to beat yourself up over it, but you should apologize and take the time to clear the air. Tell them that what they were doing surprised you and caught you off guard, but that you shouldn’t have reacted so dramatically, and that you’re sorry. Then run through the other discussion points listed on this page to try and set a new tone going forward.