Not many parents/guardians are clear on exactly when and how they should address their child’s sexual education. Many of our sexual norms and values are culturally determined, but each child develops in their own way and at their own pace. And as a parent/guardian you know your own child best. With knowledge of general sexual development and knowledge of your own child’s character, you as a parent/guardian can best determine what behaviour is preferable and permissible and how you can modify it. But where do you start? Here, we take you through the various stages of sexual development.
Child sexuality is aimed at intimacy, so ‘intimacy development’ would actually be a better term here. Affectionate physical contact with people to whom a baby is attached is a basic need in the early years. But be aware of the fact that when you touch a child, it is their body you are touching. You are a guest, even when you are simply giving them a hug. So always do so with respect and only if the child is okay with it.
Focus on what is appropriate and when
In this phase of their life, the whole body is one big tactile zone for children. Just as they discover their own hands and feet, they also discover their genitals. They sense that this feels different than, for example, their thighs, and that some things feel good. Slowly but surely they develop the intellect to also remember where that nice spot is and will then look for it. Feeling and discovering it themselves is completely normal and age-related. They just don’t understand when it is appropriate to do this. Therefore, sex education at this stage should focus on when things are and are not appropriate.
Children this age are extra curious. And that curiosity also applies to their own body and those of others. They look at each other, touch each other and notice differences. At this stage, this kind of behaviour carries no sexual undertones with it. What ultimately does give it weight is the message that we, as adults, send in the way we respond to it. Children then sense that there is something special about it, which makes it more interesting. What’s more, from this period onwards, children discover that boys are boys and girls are girls. They draw distinctions between each other, and gender role behaviour begins to develop.
Penises and vaginas
Language is an important thing and it is during this period, when children learn to talk, that the foundations are laid for later. Pedagogic expert Annemiek Waage advocates the use of a clear name for genitals from the very first moment. So boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. We also need to be aware of how we talk about things like this. Toddlers are just learning to talk and are well aware that language is important. They also realise that dirty words have a different effect than ordinary words because of the reaction they get from adults. This doesn’t just apply to words though; it also applies unconsciously to body language or pitch. When children notice that they get a response to a certain word, that piques their interest and therefore they say it again.
Sneaking a look
Once at primary school, your child will face a different environment, where it’s no longer possible to just walk around with buttocks bared and to touch each other. However, children are very eager to learn and will find other ways to satisfy their curiosity. For example, they will hide behind a wall to look at each other. After all, this behaviour is not deemed acceptable within the teacher’s field of vision, so by doing it this way they are still falling within what they believe is standard behaviour, namely not doing it in public.
Talk about it openly, honestly and clearly
You can explain how things work to children, even with pictures, but they won't really understand at this age. At this stage in their life, children do not comprehend that there was a moment in time when they weren’t around; they are under the assumption that they were always in their mother's womb. Nevertheless, it is important to be open about this subject. Understanding comes naturally and talking about it honestly is essential for the vibe of, and confidence for, later conversations.
In love for the first time
Children this age do not fully understand everything yet, which is why their imaginations run wild. They get confused between what they imagine and what they actually comprehend. Now, they mainly observe and register everything: what we do and say, how we behave. Slowly but surely, they turn their attention more and more to others and romantic love starts to play a role. Although (most) children do not act upon this yet, they are well aware that being in love is a different feeling than friendship. As adults, we must therefore also take this seriously. Don’t talk about it, unsolicited, with other people and don't make fun of it.
I know a joke, two tits in an envelope
Children now have fun with sexually oriented jokes and games, such as playing doctor or spin the bottle. This is okay, it is part of this phase in their life, but be sure to agree on what is and what is not allowed. Continue to talk openly and honestly with your child during this time as well. For example, if they have made a drawing of genitalia, discuss whether it really looks like this.
If children fall in love now, they will behave accordingly. They will also assume clearer gender roles. Boys and girls form separate groups and adhere to the learned norms and values. They want more physical contact and start to masturbate.
Also, although children will not (in retrospect) call themselves homosexual at this age, they do know that being in love feels different for them than for others. As adults, we therefore have a responsibility not to joke about homosexuality, for example. After all, we want to create a safe environment for our children.
Sudden prudishness and a lot to learn
The body is now developing more. This is faster in girls than in boys, but emotional development lags behind physical development for both genders. Interest in sexuality as we know it as adults is growing. Although it may seem like your child already knows and understands a lot, this is not yet so. At this point it can help to offer books or videos to your child. It also helps if the family is always free to talk about it and there is an open, honest and safe environment to do so. Nevertheless, at this age your child will suddenly become prudish and the bathroom door will be locked. This reserve will disappear later, but it is important to give your child space and respect. For example, knock on the door before entering their room.
Chats and agreements
Discuss with your child what they think is normal and be sure to have simple chats on a regular basis, so that you make conversations with each other easy. By talking normally about sexuality, you make it normal for your child. And it becomes easier to talk about with each other. Just as you agree that you can’t pick your nose at the dining table, but you can in bed, you can also make agreements about sexual things. It is normal behaviour, and we as adults, need to give our children direction on this.