&enavore> That StillChaWen^e ChWdren and A d u l t s

“You Want Me to
Talk to Children
about What?”

Responding to the Subject of
Sexuality Development in Young Children

Mary Sciaraffa and Theresa Randolph

The toddler classroom is quiet and soft music plays
in the background. Most of the children are already
asleep. Sarah notices one child lying on her stom-
ach with a pillow between her knees. Sarah is not
sure, but the child appears to be using the pillow for

I t is n o t u n c o m m o n for a teacher to be shocked or
embarrassed when a young child engages in self-pleasuring,
sensual activities during rest time. The teacher’s reaction
sends societal messages to the child about the behavior.
Fraiberg states, “The child who discovers that his genitals

Mary Sciaraffa, PhD, CFLE, is an assistant professor of child
and family studies and the director ofthe Early Childhood Lab at
the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. These roles allow her to
model putting theory to practice on a daily basis with children and
adults, [email protected]

Theresa Randolph, BS, is a program coordinator of the Class-
room on Wheels for the Washoe County School District in Reno,
Nevada. She provides classes at Truckee Meadows Community
College and community-based trainings on sexuality develop-
ment in young children, [email protected]

1, 3, 7

give him good feelings but arouse disgust or horror in a
loved person, mother or father, may come to feel that such
feelings are bad, that his body is bad and that he, as a per-
son, is bad” (1996, 195). Many teachers don’t know how to
react to children’s sexual behaviors or questions.

A taboo topic

Many people think it is taboo to talk about sex with
children. Adults reinforce this belief when, for example,
they use substitute words rather than vagina or penis.
They may be embarrassed to learn about children’s sexual
development or ask others for assistance. Chrisman and
Couchenour explain, “In part because of a prevalent atti-
tude in society that leads adults to be ill at ease and unpre-
pared to respond objectively to children’s sexual curiosity
and behaviors, very little specific research has been done
in this area” (2002, 14). While parents and teachers have
access to a lot of information about early childhood devel-
opment in other developmental domains (cognitive, social,
emotional, and physical), there are limited resources for
information on human sexuality development in the early
childhood years.

3 2 Young Children’My 2011

Sexuality information for parents and teachers is often
presented as a way to protect children from sexual preda-
tors and sexual abuse. These topics are extremely impor-
tant, but information regarding healthy sexuality is equally
critical. Further, resources abound for discussing sexuality
with elementary school-age children, but information for
discussing sexuality with children who are not yet enrolled
in formal schooling is not readily available.

Although most people in US society are open about
sexuality now, the topic of human sexuality development
in young children continues to challenge early childhood
educators. Early childhood professionals need to become
knowledgeable about and comfortable with the topic in
order to support healthy sexuality development for chil-
dren. Chrisman and Couchenour state, “One attitude in the
United States today is that young children do not need to
know about sexuality. Unfortunately, when children’s curi-
osity about sex is ignored or when children are told that
they should not say ‘those words’ or are shamed for asking
questions, an attitude of secrecy is conveyed”(2002, 4).
Teachers send a message to children if sexuality is the
only topic they won’t discuss openly. Honig states,
“When adults are anxious and guilty about sexuality
themselves, they can create havoc with young children’s
ideas of reality” (2000, 71). Teachers don’t wait to talk
with young children about nutrition or traffic safety; they
need to treat sexuality in the same way.

(Fraiberg 1996,195). For example, a toddler teacher can
indirectly provide information about sexuality when she
changes a child’s diaper. She sends the toddler an influen-
tial message about her body if she wrinkles up her nose
and tells her, “Your poop is stinky. It’s time for you to learn
to poop in the toilet.” If instead the teacher tells the child,
“I’m going to change your diaper now, but one day you will
use the potty all on your own,” she can teach the child that
there is nothing shameful about bodily functions. Adults
who are open and positive help children develop a healthy
attitude about their bodies, about being a boy or a girl,
about having close relationships with others, and about
asking questions about their bodies.

Sexuality education is a lifelong process. The groundwork
for sexuality education begins prior to birth. Consider the
choices a family makes when decorating the baby’s room:
gender-specific colors and decoration.s communicate the
family’s attitudes, beliefs, and values regarding gender roles.

Understanding sexuality

Human sexuality is much more than intercourse and
reproduction; it encompasses many components, including a
person’s identity, gender, behaviors, values, and ideas about
intimacy. Young children learn about these components
either directly or indirectly from trusted adults.

Teachers need to be aware of the messages they send
young children, because “how a child feels about himself,
how he values himself, will also be tied up with his feel-
ings about his own body. Since the child values his body
products, considers them part of his body, he acquires
some of his ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feelings about himself through
these early attitudes toward his body and body products”

Teachers don’t wait to talk with
young children about nutrition or
traffic safety; they need to treat
sexuality in the same way.

Young Children’My 2011 33

3ehavor5 That StillChaWenqe Chiidren and Aduits

For infants, the nurturing and bonding
between the child and primary caregivers
is a critical step of sexuality education
because it models intimate behaviors.
For example, families may have beliefs
about how much a baby should be held.
Some families believe that holding a baby
too much will spoil the baby or create an
unhealthy dependency. The family then
limits intimate moments between the baby
and family members, and the child learns
that intimate moments are to be brief. On
the other hand, if family members hold the
baby, look into the baby’s eyes, and cre-
ate one-on-one shared moments with the
baby, then the child learns how to create
an intimate bond with another person
through touch and shared moments.

As the child grows older, he or she
learns about sexuality from clothing, ® —
toys, and positive reinforcement of spe-
cific gender role behaviors. A boy may
be called a “Mama’s boy” if he has a close relationship
with his mother. A girl who enjoys vigorous outdoor play
might be called a “tomboy.” Parents and teachers must
acknowledge that “from the moment of birth, children
learn about love, touch, and relationships. Infants and
toddlers learn about sexuality when their parents talk
to them, dress them, show affection, and teach them
the names of the parts of their bodies” (SIECUS 2011).
Teachers and parents can promote healthy sexuality
development by using words, behaviors, and even
facial expressions that communicate acceptance.

Developmental stages of human sexuality

There are stages of human sexuality development just as
there are stages in the other developmental domains. Keep
in mind that children’s development is holistic, as each
developmental domain influences other developmental
domains. For example, a child’s level of cognitive develop-
ment determines whether the child understands that gen-
der differences are not merely based on outward appear-
ances, such as having long hair, but rather differences in
physical anatomy.

Infant to 18 months

Gender identity and gender roles start developing during
the period from infancy to about 18 months of age. Children
begin to build a sense of being male or female and the
behaviors typically associated with their gender. Teachers
can help the child differentiate between males and females.

During this stage, children are capable of physiological
sexual reflexes—boys may experience erections and girls

may experience lubrication—
and explore their body parts, including
the genitals. Caregivers may notice this behavior in infants
during diaper changes. When the caregiver removes the
child’s diaper, the child’s hands may move to his or her
genitals. Infants and toddlers are first curious about their
bodies and then are curious about others’ bodies. It is not
uncommon for a toddler to peek down a female teacher’s
shirt to see her breasts. Teachers can take advantage of
teachable moments to tell the child the correct names of
body parts, including genitals.

Infants and toddlers may engage in self-pleasuring
behavior because it is soothing. They begin to develop a
positive or negative attitude toward their own bodies that
includes what they have learned about where they can and
can’t touch and when touching is okay and when it is not.
Additionally, children learn to value themselves through
nurturing body contact, and respond positively to healthy
touches. Infants and toddlers build trust and intimacy as
they experience positive interactions with loving adults

3 4 Vbung Children-My 2011

Children ages 3 and 4 are certain about their
own gender and have firm beliefs about the differences
between males and females. They develop a sense of
acceptable behavior from the adults around them.


(Erikson 1968). At this stage, teachers can affirm the child’s
capacity to experience pleasure from touch by cuddling,
holding hands, rubbing backs, and caressing the child in
nonsexual ways.

18 to 36 months

The next stage of sexuality development begins around
18 months of age and ends at around 36 months of age.
During this time, the child develops many important atti-
tudes about sexuality, based on explicit and implicit mes-
sages from parents and other adults. Adults encourage the
child to develop a male or female identity and intentionally
and unintentionally teach expected behaviors by gender.
Thus, children at this stage begin to view themselves as
a boy or girl and start to identify other people as boys or
girls. However, children may identify genders based on
superficial attributes such as wearing earrings, having long
hair, or calling certain colors “girl colors.”

Between 18 and 36 months, children begin toilet train-
ing and learn the language for genitals and body functions
from their family and teachers. Children at this age may
use slang terms. For example, 2-year-old Tommy may put
his hands gently on his caregiver’s breasts and say, “My chi
chis!” Since young children are literal thinkers, the use of
euphemisms for genitals may lead to confusion.

Three-year-old Trina’s grandma tells her to wipe front to
back. When she asks why, Trina’s grandma explains, “To
keep your vagina clean.” Trina laughs out loud and says,
“What did you say?”

During this time, the child receives many messages from
the family and other adults concerning privacy, nudity,
and self-pleasuring. Teachers can help children learn basic
expectations about respecting other people’s privacy.
Children at this age continue to need body contact and
close relationships with others. Teachers can provide
opportunities for the child to have social interactions with
same-age peers.

– 3 to 4 years
A 4-year-old girl and her father are cuddling on the
couch, watching TV. The daughter says to her father, “I
love you. Daddy.” She then places her hand gently on his
crotch and says, “And I love your penis too.”

The next morning, the mother asks the child’s teacher
about her daughter’s behavior. The teacher explains
that there had been a discussion in the bathroom about
boys having penises. The child was making connections
between the boys at school and her father at home.

Children ages 3 and 4 are certain about their own gender
and have firm beliefs about the differences between males
and females. They develop a sense of acceptable behavior
from the adults around them. Adults can watch for chil-
dren’s nonverbal cues of interest and curiosity related to
sexuality development. For example, a teacher observed a
child lying on the couch in the dramatic play area, making
faces and puffing. The child then pulled out a baby doll from
under her shirt, wrapped it in a blanket and cuddled it.

Children may engage in self-pleasuring activities unless
taught by an adult to not do so. In this stage children feel
an internal conflict between wanting to be separate from

Young Children’My 2011 3 5

Behaviors That St///Challenge Children and Adults

caregivers and desiring a close relationship with them.
They are also curious about where they came from or
where babies come from, and may seek answers from
adults. It is important for the adult to answer children’s
questions immediately and calmly, with an accepting and
open facial expression. At this stage in the child’s devel-
opment, the adult can teach the basics of reproduction.
For example, the adult can explain that babies grow in
the uterus of a woman and that a male and a female are
required for reproduction.

During this stage, children are curious about the physi-
cal differences in boys and girls. It is normal for children to
explore sexuality through
play with dolls and peers.
The teacher can provide
dramatic play opportunities,
materials, and props such
as play houses, dress-up
clothes, and anatomically
correct dolls to assist chil-
dren in exploring gender
roles and physical gender

Teachers may see chil-
dren engaged in consensual
exploration of same-age
playmates’ bodies in a
playful, curiosity-focused
manner, such as playing
doctor. This type of play is
spontaneous, mutual, good-
humored, and a normal and
healthy part of sexuality
development. Adults do
not have to be comfortable
with this type of play, just
aware that it is normal and
healthy. Adults can use this
type of play as an oppor-
tunity to teach the child,
“Your body belongs to you,
and you have the right to say no to unwanted touches.”
At this point, the adult can also teach the child the differ-
ence between appropriate (healthy) and inappropriate
(unhealthy) touching.

Finally, children in this stage begin to enjoy bathroom
humor and repeat adult curse words. If a child uses a curse
word, the teacher may want to assess the child’s under-
standing of the word. This can help the teacher respond to
the incident. The adult has several options when respond-
ing to this behavior. She can choose to ignore it, treat the
incident in a matter-of-fact way, or provide the child with
a substitute word. Children at this stage are able to under-
stand guidelines for bathroom humor regarding what it is.

when it is to be used, where it can be used, how it can be
used, and why the words are used.

Adults can bring up sexuality issues in response to
events the child is aware of, such as pregnancy. To intro-
duce and reinforce concepts, the adult can engage in the
following activities:

• Read books with children that address gender, pregnancy,
and other sexuality topics

• Read books that include pictures of children and adults in
nonstereotypical roles and clothing

• Teach children about diverse families and cultures

5 to 6 years

At ages 5 and 6, chil-
dren begin to measure
themselves against older
children and adults.
They tend to model adult
behaviors and explore
adult relationships
through role-playing
activities, such as being
a parent or teacher.
Children continue to be
curious about how babies
are made, pregnancy, and
birth, and may ask adults
to answer their ques-
tions. Children in this
stage are learning about
limits, privacy, and man-
ners, but may still engage
in sex-related play and
compare body parts with
friends to satisfy their

In all cultures children
at this age tend to have
strong same-sex friend-

ships (Honig 2000). Children choose same-sex playmates
spontaneously. Chrisman and Couchenour claim that
“these preferences are very strong and they frequently lead
to gender segregation at school” (2002, 54). Children ages
5 and 6 have a strong interest in stereotyped gender roles
and tend to choose gender-stereotypical activities. They
may engage in teasing and name-calling, focusing on those
who do not follow stereotypical gender roles. At this stage,
5- and 6-year-old children need body contact, such as hugs,
but usually seek it out less than at an earlier age. Last, at
this age children are learning personal responsibility for
the welfare of their own body and are able to learn to say
no to unwanted touches.

Behaviors Tiiat May indicate
Potential Problems

There are some sexuality behaviors in children that could

be a cause for concern. These behaviors may indicate that

a child is experiencing sexual abuse. Families and teach-

ers need to be aware of and know how to respond to such

behaviors. Some examples follow. The child

• mimics explicit adultlike sexual behavior;

• appears to have learned the behavior;

• repeats the behavior;

• involves others by coercion, in particular if the other child

is younger or physically smaller;

• attempts to screen the behavior from others’ view.

If you observe worrisome behavior, remain composed

and calm. If necessary, ask the children to put their clothes

o n , and redirect their play. If you need to express your

discomfort, do so when children are not around. Always

document such incidents in writing. (For more information

about behaviors that may indicate sexual abuse and for a

documentation template, go to the Stop It Now! website at

3 6 Young C/iZ/dren* July 2011

Aduits and ciiiidren are different

A teacher’s anxiety about children’s sexuality often
comes from a misconception that children have adult-
like motivations. There are distinct differences between
children’s sexuality and adult’s sexuality: “Adults are
knowing and aware of consequences whereas children are
curious and playful; adults are self-conscious and desire

privacy, and children are spontaneous and open; adults are
motivated by eroticism, whereas children are superficial
in their sensuality (their sensuality is not motivated by
sexual desire and is often an imitation of observed adult
behavior)” (Chrisman & Couchenour 2002, 24). Families
and teachers should keep in mind these differences when
observing and responding to children.

Frequently Asked Questions—Tips for Teachers and Families

How shouid aduits respond to chiidren’s questions and
comments about sexuality?

Calmly answer the questions according to the age and pre-
vious knowledge ofthe child. For example, a 3-year-old child
may ask why a boy stands up to use the toilet. The teacher
may say, “Boys and girls use the toilet differently because
boys have a penis and girls have a vagina.” The teacher can
always refer the child back to the parents. Keep it simple.
Make sure you understand the child’s question. When a child
asks, “Where do babies come from?” he or she could be ask-
ing if the baby was born in a hospital. Use correct vocabulary
for body parts and answer in a matter-of-fact way. If the child
asks questions or makes comments at a time when you can t
give an answer because you cannot give the child your full
attention, tell the child that the question is important, and set
a time to talk with him or her later If you don’t know what to
say, it is OK to tell the child, “Hmmm, that is a good question.
I need a few minutes to think about the answer.”

How shouid aduits respond to “toiiet talk”?

Treat toilet talk like any other inappropriate behavior, and
respond with positive guidance techniques. Ignore what you
can. Tell the child that certain words sometimes upset people,
and you want the classroom to be a comfortable place for
everyone. Teachers can enlist the family’s support by asking
the family to minimize the power of the words by not laughing
at the child or encouraging him or her to repeat the words for
other family members.

One year, I had a group of children who were very excited
by toilet words. My staff and I exhausted all of our methods
and then came up with the idea of allowing the children to
use toilet words in the bathroom, one child at a time. At first,
the children were intrigued with the idea, and the behavior
escalated. But without a giggling audience, they got tired of
having their playtime, snack, and recess interrupted by fre-
quent trips to the bathroom to use bathroom words.

How shouid aduits respond to chiidren’s behaviors that
are traditionaily associated with the other sex?

Accept each child as an individual. Communicate that
all children are equally valued and accepted. Girls need to
engage in rough and tumble play as much as boys. Boys who

cuddle and care for dolls are learning nurturing roles. Notice
the characteristics of the dress-up clothes that intrigue the
children. Provide clothing that offers those characteristics for
both boys and girls or clothes that are gender-neutral; velvet
tuxedo jackets, dress shoes, western wear, or community
helper uniforms and hats suitable for both genders. Read
aloud books that show children and adults engaged in non-
stereotypical activities. (For more information, see Derman-
Sparks & Edwards 2010.)

How shouid aduits respond to chiidren’s pubiic
or private seif-pieasuring?

Self-pleasuring is normal. To address this behavior, explain
to children what behaviors are appropriate in private or
public. Assess the situation. If the behavior is public, calmly
(and privately) explain that it is something that is done in
private, and redirect the child to another activity. If the child
sometimes self-pleasures during nap time while falling
asleep, provide a napping space that is not in direct view
of other children. The teacher can reinforce to the child that
the behavior is something to be done in private. Negative or
mixed messages about this behavior can have a long-lasting
impact that may affect the child’s sexuality and identity into
adolescence and adulthood.

How should aduits taii< to chiidren about privacy? Teach children the difference between secrecy and privacy to prevent sexual abuse. A secret is something only a few people know, and it is not shared with others. Secrets that make you uncomfortable should be shared with an adult. Pri- vate information is allowed to be known but not necessarily shared. For example, everyone knows that we all have to use the bathroom. It is not a secret, but it is a private activity How shouid aduits respond to chiidren's body expiora- tion and curiosity about others? Redirect the children. Explain in a matter-of-fact manner that there are parts of our bodies that are private (the parts a bathing suit covers). Set clear limits for expectations (for example, children play with their clothes on). Arrange the environment so adults can see and supervise all areas. behaviors That 5t/7/Challenge ChWdren and Adults Supporting young children's healthy sexuality deveiopment Early childhood teachers and administrators support chil- dren's healthy sexuality development directly, as they inter- act with children, and indirectly, as they work with families and plan programs (Chrisman & Couchenour 2002). Early childhood programs should work with families to develop center policies and practices regarding human sexuality edu- cation. Center staff should communicate the center's policies to the families of the children enrolled in the program. Keep in mind that family members are the primary teach- ers for children's sexuality development (SIECUS 2011). Teachers need to be aware of families' beliefs and values. Toileting, privacy, and gender roles are culture driven. Teachers and families may not always agree, but it is impor- tant to set common goals and keep communication open. An example of a common goal could be to build and main- tain children's self-esteem and to send the child positive messages about his or her own body. Conclusion Many family members and teachers feel stress when children exhibit normal behaviors and ask questions related to healthy sexuality development. This stress indicates the need to continue discussing and researching this topic. Additional support and resources are needed to put sexuality development on an equal footing with other developmental domains: "When sexuality is viewed as part and parcel of human development, it loses its mystique and takes its rightful place as an integral part of each child's development" (Chrisman & Couchenour 2002, 49). Children will thrive when teachers and parents support their sexual- ity development. When trusting adults respond knowledge- ably to children's questions and behaviors, then the child is more likely to develop a healthy sense of sexuality. References Chrisman, K.. & D. Couchenour. 2002. Healthy Sexuality Development: A Guide for Early Childhood Educators and Families. Washington, DC: NAEYC. Derman-Sparks, L., & J.O. Edwards. 2010. Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves. Washington, DC: NAEYC. Eriiison, E. 1968. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: W.W. Norton. Fraiberg, S.H. 1996. The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood. New York: Simon & Schuster. Honig, A. 2000. "Psychosexual Development in Infants and Young Children: Implications for Caregivers." young Children 55 (5): 70-77. SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States). 2011. About Us: Position statements, Additional Resources Books for adults Brick, P., N. Davis, M. Fischel, T Lupo, A. MacVicar, & J. Mar- shall. 1989. Bodies. Birtb. and Babies: Sexuality Education in Early Childhood Programs. Hackensack, NJ: The Center for Family Life, Education Planned Parenthood of Bergen County. Haffner, D.W. 2008. From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children. 2nd ed. New York: Newmarket Press. Johnson, TC. 1999. Understanding Your Child's Sexual Behavior: What's Natural and Healthy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. Wilson, PM. 1991. When Sex Is the Subject: Attitudes and Answers for Young Children. Santa Cruz, CA: ETR Associates. Books for young children Brown, L.K., & M. Brown. 1997. What's the Big Secret? Talking about Sex with Girts and Boys. New York: Hachette Book Group. Cole, B. 1996. Mommy Laid an Egg: Or. Where Do Babies Come From? San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. Cole, J. 1999. How You Were Born. Minneapolis, MN: Tandem Library. Cole, J. 2001. When You Were Inside Mommy. New York: HarperCollins. Harris, R. 2006. It's Not the Stork! A Book about Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. Saltz, G. 2005. Amazing You! Getting Smart about Your Pri- vate Parts. New York: Penguin. Schoen, M. 1990. Belly Buttons and Navels. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus. Spelman, C, & T. Weidner. 1997. Your Body Belongs to You. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman. Weir, A.B., ed. 1992. What's Inside? Baby Toronto: Grolier. Westheimer, R. 2001. Who Am I? Where Did I Come from? New York: Golden Books. Websites for adults Birds+Bees+Kids— Sexuality and U— SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States)— Stop It Now!— Copyright © 2011 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at 3 8 Young Children'My 2011 Copyright of YC: Young Children is the property of National Association for the Education of Young Children and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.

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