“At what point does a toddler’s exploration of his private parts become a problem?” “Is he touching himself too much?” “If I ignore it, will she just grow out of it?”  “Should I intervene?”  “If so, when and how?”  When young parents ask these questions, they are likely a bit anxious and uncertain, and they are asking for resources to help them understand more about child development.  For these parents, I would like to offer a few thoughts of my own and a couple of resources that can help.

A little common sense is in order

Remember when your baby was first startled by his hand floating in front of his face?  Remember when she finally realized that that hand was hers and she could control its movement?  And do you recall her delight in exploring fingers and toes, and then later ears and nose?  Your toddlers’ discovery and exploration of their bodies, including his penis or her vulva, are just the next things they are finding out.  The activity is not sexual, although our positive reaction can help them in these first steps in developing a healthy body image.

Why am I so bothered by this?

Second, if your three or four year olds’ touching of themselves is creating anxiety in you, your first action may need to be to take a mental and emotional step back and think through the why’s and wherefores of your own beliefs.  Likely you have been influenced, as have most of us, by misinformation and childhood experiences of our own.  Helpful resources for this reality check may be a visit to your family doctor and to a variety of helpful web resources like Lynne Thompson’s article, Toddlers and Sexual Discovery.   For a good discussion of the difference between normal behavior and problematic behavior, go to this article, What is Normal and What Is Not.

Some Do’s and Dont’s

Armed with the two first steps mentioned above, you are then ready to approach your toddler’s behavior with a little less anxiety and strengthened with the assurance of some good information.   [Note:  I offer these thoughts with the caveat that my suggestions must be secondary to the guidance you receive (and the advice of experts for that matter) to the Lord for the final say.]  A few Do’s and Don’ts may be helpful at this point:

  1. Do teach your children the proper names of body parts. A three or four year old can understand that they have a penis or a vulva.  Euphemisms like “peepee” tend to trivialize those parts of the body.  We don’t give nicknames to use for their hands or eyes, so treat the rest of their body in the same way.
  2. Do help them understand the importance of privacy. (This is a good time to talk about staying safe and what is appropriate touching by others as well.) Three and four year-olds are often clueless about this.  A calm reminder that “touching private parts of our bodies isn’t to be done in front of other people” can be helpful.  Of course, do keep in mind the personality of your child – my son at that age took on any boundary set on his behavior as a fun and challenging mountain to climb.  My conversations along these lines with him were best had at home because we were going to need plenty of time to satisfy his questions and objections!
  3. Don’t squash their sensuality. Do help them learn to harness and focus it instead on enjoyment of life with appropriate boundaries.  Children should grow up knowing that it isn’t a sin to feel good, and God wants to teach us how to feel good in all the best ways He intended. Then they are more likely to turn to Him for answers later in their lives when they may feel confused about their gender or sexuality and relationship issues.
  4. Don’t underestimate the power of distraction. At three or four years old, the attention of most children is easily distracted (from body exploration for example), by the mention of a new book you haven’t yet read to them, or a favorite activity (new crayons are good for a good while, as I recall).
  5. Do talk with your children openly about why they do anything, including why they touch themselves. I remember asking my daughter why she always put her stuffed animal under her shirt when we got in the car.  She said, “Well, it won’t get all messed up in your dirty car.”  Upon hearing that, and being the smart person I am, I abandoned what I was going to say next, “although it’s normal to want soft things next to your body, it might be better to . . . .”  That just wasn’t what she needed at all!  I think she needed for me to clean the car.