Sex play in 3 to 5-year-olds
William and Stacey had both recently turned 3 and were from different families. They lived in the same household and were always playing together. Stacey’s mother Cherry walked into the bedroom to find William lying naked on the bed. Stacey was rubbing talcum powder all over his body. William was loving it and lay there with an erection. Cherry left them playing, feeling comfortable they were both enjoying themselves and that it was harmless play. 5 minutes later they were both busy playing outside.
Pre-schoolers start to become curious about the sexual differences between boys and girls, and compare themselves with others. They explore their bodies including their sexual parts. They learn by looking at each other, by touching and by playing games such as ‘doctors and nurses’ or mimicking adult sexual behaviour. Children’s interest in sex and sex play does not take over their whole playtime and is just one of many things they want to explore.
Is your child’s sex play normal? Parents often ask this. What is normal sexually oriented behaviour in 3 – 5 year-olds? A study found that children enjoyed being naked, and masturbated openly at age three, but less so by age five. They found children’s sex play, such as touching each other’s genitals, involved curiosity rather than sexual awareness. Pre-schoolers are curious about their bodies and enjoy being touched. Young children love sensuality and seek physical experiences. Through play they learn lessons they will need to fully experience their sexuality as adults. Their play is characterised by excitement, sensuality, spontaneity and openness. It is easy for parents to forget that their child’s sex play is very different from adult sexual activity, which is characterised by passion, eroticism and privacy.
As long as there is no physical danger, there is no need for parents to worry about sex play if the children are about the same age and size, and if the children are not being made to do something they don’t want to do. When children are of a similar age and size it is less likely that one child will persuade the other to do something they are uncomfortable with. Most sex play is between children who are friends or siblings.
David shared this story at a parent’s workshop:
I have three sons aged 4 to 7 who have lots of fun together. But they have a new game in the evening after their bath. They use the bed as a trampoline, jumping and rolling about naked. That’s okay but they get very excited and have started grabbing each other’s genitals. I’m wondering if I should stop them.
-David, father of three sons
After talking about the game with the other parents he decided the game could be unsafe and he would talk to his sons. The messages he wanted to give them was that their genitals were sensitive and easily hurt and they needed to be more careful in their play.
When children are found playing sex games they are often embarrassed, especially if they learn their parents do not approve. If they are asked to stop and play something else they will, at least while adults are present. They usually enjoy these games just as they do other games but they won’t be particularly upset by changing activities.
If you find children playing sex games and you are not sure how to react, take a deep breath and think first. Many things children find confusing or frightening are caused by the way parents react. If you show dismay or indicate your child’s behaviour is dangerous they may become concerned that something bad will happen to them. If they aren’t worried or upset about the game, treat it in a low-key manner and redirect them if you think it is necessary. Think about the message you want to get across to your child. This message will be important in their developing understanding of sex and sexuality.
The message might be that it is okay to be curious about others but that the sexual parts of their own and others’ bodies are private. You could say:
I see you are playing a game about your bodies. You can learn by looking at each other but remember that this part of your body is private. You can also learn by looking at books. Let’s go and look at some books together.
Setting clear boundaries in a non-judgemental way will guide your child away from unsafe activities. For example, you may need to be clear that it isn’t safe to push anything into the vagina (a common experiment during water play).