Healthy sexual development of children

Children begin to learn about sexuality from the first days of their lives by watching and listening to adults and children around them, and from their own exploration. Sexuality is a normal part of growing up.

By understanding that sexuality is a natural part of human growth and development, and providing supportive environments that encourage children to feel good about themselves and to ask questions, parents, childcare providers and teachers can support healthy sexual development in children.

Sexuality includes the whole person. Anatomy and Physiology (the physical features and chemistry that make us female or male); sex roles (the way we act as boys, girls, women and men); sexual feelings (the normal physical drives which are affected by our emotional desire for intimacy which we may have toward the opposite sex, same sex, or both); other feelings and needs (love, warmth, belonging, self-respect); and sexual expression (the physical or emotional ways in which people communicate their attraction or affection for others); and sexual values (our beliefs about sex, sexuality and relationships, which are influenced by our culture).

Many factors may influence differences in a child’s natural and healthy sexual development such as individual differences, age, family values and attitudes, ethnic and cultural issues. Generally, “normal” sexual exploration play of children occurs within the context of children exploring their own bodies and the bodies of others by playing games such as “show me yours, I’ll show you mine” and “playing doctor”; engaging in mutual exploration with brothers, sisters or friends of a similar age; and voluntarily participating in “peeking” at or touching others.

When children are exploring in these ways, they are usually “lighthearted” and “giggly” and are often embarrassed if found out by an adult. Children engaging in normal “sexual play” are usually easily distracted from the behavior.

Infants and toddlers

Children this age are beginning to learn about their sexuality by observing the people who care for them-what  they do and how they act. Babies feel secure and begin to develop healthy feelings about themselves when they are held, touched, fed, diapered and spoken to in a pleasant, loving and caring way.

It is normal for babies and toddlers to explore their bodies. They are quick to learn that touching their genitals feels good. Responding calmly when children touch their genitals communicates a positive message that the body sensation they are feeling is natural. Naming all parts of their body as children discover them (“That is your nose, that is your leg, that is your vulva/penis, that is your ear”) also sends a positive message about sexuality. Being allowed to feel comfortable with their bodies and feelings helps lay the foundation for children to feel secure in later talking to parents about sexuality.

Preschool children (3 to 4 years)

Preschool age children are naturally very curious about their own bodies. They often seem to enjoy being naked, and frequently grab and rub their genitals just to experience the physical sensation. They may rub their genitals with their hands, a toy animal or blanket to sooth themselves or while falling asleep.

Children this age are also very curious about the bodies of other children. They are interested in the differences between girls and boys, learning the names of different body parts, and often experiment with “bathroom” humor. Children at this age may “play doctor,” or “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” as an opportunity to “peek” at the genitals of other children.

Many preschool age children are very curious about the bodies of adults, too. They often look at, cuddle next to, grab and touch different parts of adults’ bodies. Children begin to ask questions like “Where do babies come from?” Playing “mommy and daddy” is a common activity in which children explore family life, and may pretend to “give birth to” a baby.

At this stage of sexual development is helpful to create an environment where children feel encouraged to ask questions about their bodies, health and sexuality. Answering children’s questions in a matter-of-fact, accurate, simple way that they can understand communicates a positive message to children that they, and their questions, are respected and valued. This helps children to feel secure, and supported in continuing to talk later with adults about sexuality.