Parentip of the Week: How to help children who are sexualized too early

2014-02-09T00:00:00Z 2014-07-03T11:32:32Z Parentip of the Week: How to help children who are sexualized too earlyArizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 09, 2014 12:00 am  • 

My 5-year-old son has a habit that troubles me. He rubs his penis against the adult females who visit. He doesn’t do that to younger children — just adult females. I have cautioned, spoken and scolded, but all to no avail. He is my first son, and I want him to grow up innocently. I don’t expose him to adult TV, so I really don’t know where he is picking this up. Please, what do I do? This has been going on for over a year.”

This question troubles me, too. This young boy appears to have been “sexualized” much too early.

We are sexual beings from birth: Baby boys get erections, and both baby boys and girls may touch their genitals. Child psychiatrist Alayne Yates, formerly at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, beautifully describes a nursing baby in her book “Sex Without Shame,” saying, “The infant is a sensuous being who is capable of experiencing a crescendo of pleasure with each feeding. Triggered by odor, exquisitely responsive to touch, greedy and aggressive, he claims his prize and melts into languid slumber.” She points out there is a reason Cupid is always portrayed as an infant: “To be in love is to re-experience infancy.”

However, the work of children is to learn how to grow up and become responsible adults who, when they reach an appropriate age, are able to experience the pleasures of sex responsibly. This means parents must learn to be both “askable” and comfortable in their role as the child’s first sex educators. And parents must teach about sex and handle the child’s early sexuality and curiosity in such a way that the child learns two things: 1) Sex is pleasurable, not shameful. 2) Sex is for grown-ups, not kids.

Many young children rub their genitals or masturbate. Parents frequently ask me what to do when their 3- or 4-year-old son “plays with himself” in public. Quietly, and without making a fuss, say: “We don’t do that in public. You can do it in your room.” And start reading a sex-education picture book together. It’s important to deal with the child’s curiosity about the body and how sexual organs look and develop in both males and females. It is recommended that if a child does not ask about sex (“Where do babies come from?”) by age 4, parents should bring up the subject. “Do you wonder where babies come from? Let’s look at this book together.” ( 

But today’s question is about disturbing incidents lasting for many months, so the mother’s concern is appropriate. This was my answer to her question:

Alas, it is not only adult TV that sexualizes our kids way too early. Much of the TV that our children see every day is suggestive, as are TV ads, billboards and magazines. And the porn an adult might be watching on a computer or cellphone is only a touch away. It is also possible that a woman or girl your son knows could have touched his penis or rubbed him. Of course, whenever a young child does sexual things, we must think about and rule out actual sexual abuse.

What to do now? You must set limits to this behavior. Every time he rubs against another adult female, immediately take him aside and whisper to him, “Don’t do that; we don’t do that in public.” Speak calmly but firmly. If he doesn’t stop, remove him from the scene.

Your son needs information about sex. This sounds counterintuitive. If you want a child to stop using sexual gestures, why talk to him about sex? Because such behavior can mean he is curious. Be sure to tell him about good touching, like hugs, and bad touching, like someone touching you in private places. If this does not stop him or he starts doing it more often, ask his pediatrician for a referral to a child psychiatrist. If he were my child, I would call it to his doctor’s attention now.

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent and the founder and CEO of She welcomes your individual parenting questions. Email for a professional, personal, private and free answer to your questions.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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