Between 3 and 6 years old: a curious explorer!
Once more, a new erogenous zone is discovered: the sex organs, meaning the penis and the vagina. The young child will explore more deeply his genitality and the associated pleasure. At this stage of psychosexual development, masturbation is highly prevalent in a majority of toddlers. For example, it is not rare to see a child of that age caressing his sex organs in front of the television or during a meal.
Some parents may feel uneasy when confronted to their little child’s autoerotic behaviour and ignore how to react and intervene. The child is now old enough to make cognitive associations and this is a great opportunity for the parents to teach the notion of intimacy to their toddler. To avoid an association between the search for pleasure and doing something wrong, the parents should avoid associating the term “secretly” to the concept of privacy. The concept of privacy is highly relevant for the toddler as it strengthens his feeling of being sole owner of his body while teaching him the rules of society. Regarding masturbation, many parents wonder when it may become problematic for their child. Masturbation becomes disturbing when it leads to physical pain, when it is compulsive or when it becomes the main interest of the child. If it does, seek professional help.
In connection with the previous stages of psychosexual development, the sexual identity of the young child continues to grow. Between three and five years old, the child understands that his biological gender is permanent. Between five and six years old, a strong sense of belonging to his own sex is felt. To achieve this, the young child goes through a variety of explorations, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. The child who shows off his private parts in front of his family or the one who plays doctor is not perverted. This is a typical behaviour for a child at this stage of psychosexual development. This sexual exploration allows him to compare himself, to reassure him in his normality and to assert his sexual specificity. Sexual play is not worrisome; it is beneficial. The parent can still discreetly make sure that there is no significant age gap and that everyone participates voluntarily.
The curiosity of the little child is also expressed through his questions. He wonders about the differences between the sexes, about birth, about relations between men and women, etc. Moreover, several questions are asked regarding these matters. For example: “Where does the baby come out?”, “Where do I come from”, “Why can’t I marry daddy?”.
The easiest way to answer these questions is to just plain answer, honestly and in an adapted language without trying to explain more than the little one asks. It is also a great opportunity to offer the child a book about sexuality that is appropriate for his age so he can find answers to his questions at his own pace. To speak openly and frankly about sexuality as well as basic safety rules will help him to get to know his body and develop his self-esteem.
In short, "The sexuality of young children is a story of love, growth, discovery, beauty, laughter and giggles of pleasure and" tickling "..." (Robert, 1999)
The parent is the most important agent of sexuality and sexual health for his child. I invite you to question your own values about sexuality before beginning the sexual education of your child. Answer the following questions: What sexual education have you received? What kind of sexual education would you have liked to receive? How do you see human sexuality? Are you comfortable discussing sexuality with your child? What topics are more difficult to address and why? What would you contribute to your children’s sexuality? These reflections will certainly help guide your future educational interventions about sexuality or be better equipped to handle it.
- Robert, Jocelyne. 1999. Parlez-leur d’amour… et de sexualité. Québec : Les Éditions de l’homme. 185 pages.
- Société des Obstétriciens et Gynécologues du Canada (SOGC). 2006. « La sexualité et le développement de l’enfant » . In ma sexualite.ca : Pour accéder à un mieux-être sexuel. En ligne. Consulté le 19 janvier 2009.
- Viau, Marie-France. Frédérique Saint-Pierre. 2006. La sexualité de l’enfant expliquée aux parents. Montréal : Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine. 197 pages.
By Christine Morin, graduate student in sexology at CRP Les Relevailles de Montréal