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Early Explorers: When Toddlers Discover Their Sexual Selves

Phyllis Edgerly

Among the world's most active explorers, toddlers are bound to be curious when they discover their genitals and notice sex differences in others.

"Diaper changes and baths are great opportunities for our three-year-old daughter to learn about her two younger brothers," says Brandon, mother of three." She helps clean them up with wipes when we change their diapers and she talks to them in baby talk about their genitals."

A parent's response to young children's curiosity lays a foundation for healthy sexual attitudes later on, experts say. As with everything else, how you interact with your child has influence for years to come.

Getting to Know Me
Children are sexual beings from birth, when they learn about relating and pleasurable experience as they are cuddled and cared for, says counselor Joan Haskell, LCSW of Merrimack, NH. Toddlerhood is when basic attitudes about sexuality are formed as children notice how their bodies feel, how others touch them, how family members relate to each other and refer to body parts, and what behavior seems acceptable.

Toddlers also touch their genitals because they're discovering what's there and how it works, says Haskell. "It's normal, part of how they begin to differentiate and notice things about themselves and others."

This is also when they become aware of themselves as girls or boys, and are likely to point out sex differences and copy adult behavior associated with gender - "to be just like Mommy or Daddy," Haskell says."

A Parent's Response
Parents can respond to toddlers' genital play in a variety of ways. Some ignore or minimize it, recognizing that a child will understand more about modesty later on. Others may acknowledge that this feels good and point out that it's also something to be done in private. Still others might choose to redirect a toddler's attention to another activity.

Parents need to respond in a way that's comfortable for them and age-appropriate for the child, says Haskell, while bearing in mind that a message that such exploration is "bad" can create confused feelings about genital pleasure in the future. Parents who feel uncertain about how to respond can also talk with a pediatrician, trusted friend, or other informed source. "I found the group of nursing mothers I met with very helpful for discussing these kinds of things," Haskell says.

"There was a phase before she turned three when she was naked a lot and exploring her genitals casually, almost as though she was bored," says Brandon of her daughter. "My concern was cleanliness; otherwise I was comfortable with her occasional exploration, and we would talk about what she was finding so she knew what the parts were. But I told her she needed to wash up afterwards. It was my way of setting a limit and letting her know that it's something distinct to explore her genitals."

Another reason children touch themselves is for physical and emotional comfort, with self-stimulation often occurring when a toddler is tired or going to sleep, notes Keyvan Geula a marriage, family, and child therapist in private practice in Pomona, CA.

"This is the opportune time for parents to respond to the emotional and spiritual needs of their child and build a foundation for future healthy relationships," Geula says. "We can acknowledge that touching feels good, just as hugging or sucking fingers does, especially for toddlers, who experience much of their world through their bodies. It is helpful to ask, 'Are you tired honey? Would you like Mommy to rub your back?' This approach helps the toddler internalize the important relationship education that loving touch is physically, emotionally, and spiritually nurturing and pleasurable, that being touched by a trusted and caring person is a richer experience than self-touch."

Occasionally, toddlers masturbate excessively, which may indicate stress in some area of their life. Control of body sensations may be used to compensate for lack of control in toilet training or eating patterns. "Such self-stimulation may also occur because adults aren't responding to a child's activity as normal," says Haskell, "and so he learns to get attention this way."

Maximizing "Teachable Moments"
Many parts of a toddler's day are tailor-made for learning about bodies and sex differences. Children with siblings of the opposite sex often have opportunities to notice differences. Toilet training or diapering naturally draw a toddler's focus to the genital area, and dressing or bathing are times when parents can help little ones learn.

They need to feel good about their whole body, so casually referring to genitals as another legitimate body part is important, Geula says. "Make a list of body parts, using correct names, and say them as your child finds them. Cartoon-like, age-appropriate picture books on human sexuality can also be a good tool for talking about the similarities and differences between males and females."

"At bath time, our children learn about each other and we talk playfully about body parts," Brandon says. "My recent pregnancy was also a good opportunity to explain more."

The best teachable moments are never forced, but happen when parent and child are enjoying each other's company in a relaxed atmosphere. "An informal chat in the car is more effective than a tense, rushed parent trying to make bath time a learning experience," Geula says. "Children are also affected by the way adults react to their questions, which for toddlers, may be less verbal than shown in our facial expressions, tone of voice, or body language."

Privacy Calling
Ultimately, parents need to introduce concepts of modesty and privacy, though at this stage, introduce is about the most they can do, says Haskell.

"Don't become so anxious about the child's sexual explorations that you forget this is also a chance to teach about character, values, and conduct such as personal dignity and awareness of others' comfort," Geula says. "We can say, 'There are things people like to do together, like eat and laugh and play, and there are things we do in private, like use the bathroom, pick our nose, or touch our penis.' Explain that other people feel more comfortable when we respect social norms."

As with most behavior, children take cues about modesty from watching adults, Haskell says. "It's fairly obvious when a child's uncomfortable about something, and important to notice when you aren't comfortable, too."

Keeping things simple, and looking to what you model yourself may be your best response, Haskell says. "What you teach them with love begins a healthy self-exploration that will last their whole life."

Phyllis Edgerly Ring, mother of two and former nurse, writes for Baby Years, Delicious Living, Connect for Kids, and a variety of other magazines on issues of family life and health. Her current book project addresses gender equality in families. She welcomes reader input at

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