Dear Mr. Dad: My 2-year-old son has discovered his genitals and spends what seems like a lot of time playing with himself. How can I get him to stop?
A: The toddler years are the age of exploration, a time when your child investigates his world and learns about all the great things he can do with his body. Giving him as much freedom as possible to explore is critical to his developing sense of autonomy and self-confidence.
Like it or not, almost all toddlers go through a genital self-exploration phase, and it's especially common right around the time when they start making the transition from diapers to big-kid underwear. After all, when they were wearing diapers all the time, their genitals were pretty hard to grab hold of. But now that they're accessible nearly all the time ... (Reminds me a little of George Carlin's quip: Why do dogs lick their crotches? Because they can.)
Still, it's a little discomfiting to watch a child play with his or her own genitals, and it's hard to resist pulling the child's hand away or snapping, "Stop that!" Maybe it's all those stories we heard about how masturbation causes blindness or turns kids into perverts.
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Whatever your reason, try to resist the urge to step between your child and his genitals. Making a big deal out of it can give him the message that that part of his body is dirty or that touching it is somehow wrong. For a little boy, "his penis is no more interesting than any other part of him," says pediatrician Fitzhugh Dodson. "It is only when we react as though there is something bad or naughty about it that we teach him to become morbidly interested."
The same obviously goes for little girls. The truth, of course, is that "our toddlers will only develop sex hang-ups if we teach them to," says Dodson. At home, the best plan of action is to neither encourage nor discourage genital exploration. In public places, however, gently redirect your child to another activity, telling him that private touching should be done in a private place, such as his own room in his own home. In addition:
– Teach the correct names for human body parts – including penis, vagina, and rectum – just as you did for belly button, nose, and elbow. Being able to name something makes it a lot less mysterious.
– Explain physical differences between adults and children. Adults' pubic hair (as well as hair on the chest, under the arms, and elsewhere) and adult-size genitals are of special concern to kids. The simple for kids this age is that as you get bigger, everything gets bigger, and that when you get to be a grown-up, you get hairier.
– Talk about touching. It's simply not okay for anyone (adult or child) to touch a child in his or her private area – except if the adult is a doctor or a parent bathing a child or changing a diaper. Bathroom privacy (closing the door, knocking) is also a good topic to bring up now.
– Empower your child. Tell him that if someone other than his parents or a doctor touches his private areas, he should tell you right away.
– Stay away from intimate touching or sex in front of your child. But be warned: your child will likely walk in on you one day. And scrambling around trying to cover up may make your child think there's something wrong with your (and, by extension, his) body. Instead, calmly put some clothes on and walk your child back to his room. Depending on what the child sees, you can talk about how adults may touch each other in certain ways.
– Don't punish or chastise your child for his behavior or for touching himself or others. Simply redirect him to another activity. Later on, have another conversation about appropriate places for that type of behavior and about the rule that it's not okay to touch anyone else.
– Observe. Curiosity about sex and self-exploration are normal (plus, it feels good). So is playing "doctor" and wanting to examine other children's body parts or show them theirs. That type of behavior may seem sexual to you, but in most cases, children see it as play. However, if your child is obsessed with touching herself or others, you may want to speak to her pediatrician about whether it's a behavioral problem or a sign of sexual abuse.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to email@example.com.)