As many parents have most likely noticed, children are curious by nature, especially when it comes to learning about sexuality. Children begin learning about sexuality as infants and continue learning throughout their lives; they begin to discover their bodies and notice others’ bodies, as well as about emotions like attachment and love. It is not unusual to see children try to pleasure themselves through physical exploration and masturbation or look at the bodies of other children (especially those of the other sex) because of this natural curiosity. This infatuation, discovery of pleasurable feelings, and desire for knowledge is completely normal.
Before hitting puberty, many children exhibit signs of physical curiosity and developing sexuality. The clearest examples of sexuality during childhood are genital fondling and sexual play, although there are also subtler indicators that many children are aware of their own and others’ sexuality. These include noticing children of the other sex and how their bodies differ, as well as observing how the adults around them act. While these behaviors are normal, many parents react negatively to the thought of their children engaging in any sexual thinking or behavior. Masturbation and sex play in children are not cause for panic; many children engage in these behaviors.
In comparison to other subtopics of human sexuality, relatively little research has been conducted concerning the sexuality of children—the majority of childhood sexuality research has focused on solely sexual abuse in childhood1. However, there have been a number of studies carried out that do offer important insights into the sexuality of children.
Research found that the frequency of sexual behavior decreases as children approach adolescence, which could possibly be explained by one theory suggesting that children become better at hiding their sexual behaviors (even if the actual rate of incidence remains stable or increases)2.
Many children begin to explore their genitals as infants, and some instances of childhood masturbation have been visible in the mother’s womb. Children have tendencies to touch themselves while their diapers are being changed and have visible signs of being aroused (such as a male body having an erection). Like all humans, babies learn via their senses and quickly figure out that touching certain areas of their bodies yields pleasure.
Some children begin to masturbate far prior to puberty. In one study, sixteen percent of mothers polled reported that their children had engaged in manual masturbation between the ages of two and five, while a different study found that one-third of females and two-thirds of males reported that they recalled masturbating prior to adolescence.
Children usually masturbate by rubbing their thighs together, directly touching their genitals, or rubbing the genitals against objects like pillows or a mattress. It is rare to see a child insert anything inside of their genitals, but some may discover that this is pleasurable as well.
Parents and caregivers have a tremendous impact on the sexual development of their children, and should not take this lightly. How parents react to this relatively common activity influences the child’s future sexual behavior. Many children receive typically negative reactions from their parents when they are found masturbating, but self-stimulation is actually a natural form of self-exploration. This behavior should not be punished or discouraged (as long as the social context is appropriate). Children should be taught not that self-exploration is dirty or bad, but rather that masturbation is a private matter and should not be performed in public. Negative responses from others will probably not reduce the frequency of masturbation, but will most likely increase the guilt and anxiety that children may feel when engaging in self-touch. Reacting with punishment and disapproval should be avoided, since it can lead to lifelong problems of shame and sexual guilt.
The majority of sexual play between children takes place between the ages of four and seven. Empirical data indicates that children’s playing in a sexual manner is extremely common and generally harmless. Sexual play during this age often mirrors the dominant heterosexual social roles assigned to women and men, including playing “house” and assigning a “mommy” and a “daddy.” This play is motivated by children’s curiosity involving social interaction, societal roles, and the bodies of others. Children see how their parents and other adults act and mimic what they see. Children might display affection to their friends by hugging and kissing, or touching each other’s genitals, which is perfectly normal. Parents should not react in a negative way because children are just exploring. Sexual play between children can cause harm if the acts are non-consensual or hurtful, in which case parents should intervene.
As children age, however, their sexual play encounters are more often associated with peers of the same sex, since boys and girls tend to “play separately.” Experts recommend that parents keep their reactions to such activities positive, since sexual play is normal and allows the child to develop into a sexually healthy adult. Children engaging in same-sex sexual play is not necessarily an indication of a homosexual identity, just as children engaging in other-sex sexual play is not necessarily an indication of heterosexual identities.
Reactions for Childhood Masturbation and Sexual Play
It is important for caregivers and parents to keep their reactions to children’s consensual sexual activity and play positive. If a child is told that these activities are “bad,” he or she may learn to associate sexual activity with feelings of guilt. Children may carry this guilt with them into adulthood, which can negatively impact their sexual lives. If a child is performing these activities excessively or in public, parents should sit down and talk with them about how these activities should be done in private versus of trying to thwart the activity altogether.
Sexual curiosity and activities are normal in childhood and should be viewed in a positive fashion. Although considered a taboo subject, (age appropriate) sex education is crucial to a child’s development. Parents should prepare an effective way to respond to the mergence of sexual themes in their child’s thoughts and behaviors and teach him or her about sexuality in an age-appropriate and beneficial manner. For more information about sex education, click here.
1 De Graaf, H. and Rademakers, J., The Psychological Measurement of Childhood Sexual Development in Western Societies: Methodological Challenges. Journal of Sex Research 48(2–3), 118–129 (2011)
2 Friedrich, W.N., Grambsch, P., Broughton, D., Kuiper, J., Beilke, RL. Normative sexual behaviour in children. Pediatrics 1991;88:456 – 64.
Last updated 13 October, 2014