By T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., with Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
QUESTION: My 6-year-old daughter seems overly curious about her and others' private areas. About a year and a half ago, I caught her with a girlfriend looking at each other. I didn't make a big deal about it, I just told them we don't do that. But my sister recently told me that my daughter was touching my nephew's private area. (He was clothed).
I have told her numerous times, usually while bathing her, that you don't let anyone touch your private area, and you don't touch anyone else's. How can I convey that this is something she mustn't do?
- J.B., Mandeville, Louisiana
DR. BRAZELTON: Children ages 4 and 5 are curious about each other's bodies and the differences between boys and girls. Their curiosity may be further heightened when parents respond with surprise and embarrassment, interfering with simple, clear, age-appropriate information.
A child who is trying to understand needs reassurance and a chance to share her questions. Let her read about sexuality (the Robie Harris book, "It's So Amazing: A Book About Eggs, *censor*, Birth, Babies, and Families," might be a way for her to uncover her questions).
A 6-year-old can take over her own bathing. Then, when you say, "Your body is your own and private," she'll be able to hear you.
"Playing doctor" at 4 and 5 is almost universal as another way to learn about gender differences. Young children will explore each other by looking at or touching each other's genitals. Sometimes they do become overstimulated by this kind of exploration.
Parents can help them by setting up play activities in places where parents' presence can be more readily felt. If children remain preoccupied with such exploration, then other possibilities will need to be considered. More adult-like sexual behavior in young children suggests that they've been exposed to adult sexual behavior, and that specialized evaluation is needed.
Distributed by New York Times Special Features. Copyright 2005 T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.