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Sexual Development
Authors: Jessica Dunn with Judith A.Myers-Walls and Dee Love

Have children in your care ever taken off their clothes? Have you ever wondered if a child is too interested in sex? Do children in your care use slang words for their body parts or bodily functions? You are not alone! These are difficult situations faced by many childcare providers.

It can help if you understand children’s sexual development. Sexual development can be uncomfortable and confusing for children and adults. Sometimes adults wonder if a child’s sexual behavior is normal. They want to give children information, but not too much. It also is hard to know how to balance parent beliefs and provider beliefs about sex.

Children develop at different rates, but there are some actions that seem to be common at certain ages. Adults may have different values, but there are some things that all adults can do to help children achieve healthy sexual development. The information in this article can help you better understand childhood sexual development. Also, you may learn how to work better with children and parents on issues of sexual development.

Several articles in Provider-Parent Partnerships deal with the topic of sex in different ways. This article talks about how children develop and how they understand their bodies. Another article deals with how children understand gender, or the roles that boys and girls play. A third covers talking to children about sexuality, such as where babies come from.


What are the normal stages of sexual development?

Birth to 2 years old
From a very early age, children are curious about their bodies. Babies young as three to five months old might touch their private parts. This touching and even masturbation are normal and natural. For children, touching their private parts and masturbating feels good and calming. Children do not have the same feelings as mature adults in these actions.

Early in their lives, children begin to recognize that there is a difference between being male or female. Children learn that some differences are related to body parts, but when children learn about boys and girls, they learn more than body differences. Children form their identities early and realize that there are expectations related to their gender. Society teaches children very early about gender roles and how they should or should not act. Often, from the time children are born, parents buy different toys for their sons and daughters. Some parents decorate children’s rooms differently for boys and girls.

2-5 years old
During these years, children learn to dress and undress themselves. Many children really like to be naked. They may become very interested in how others look under their clothes. This behavior is normal. There is no need to worry unless the child gets undressed all the time and often gets involved in sex play with other children. It may be important to talk with children about what “private” means. It is also good to explain what things should not be done in front of other people. This is the time when children can begin to understand that sexuality is private.

Boys and girls both masturbate as a natural way of exploring their bodies. Children may masturbate more between the ages of two and five than later in childhood. At this age, masturbating often helps children relax and feel calm. It helps if parents and providers make rules with children about when and where these behaviors are okay. However, if adults make too many rules, children may become ashamed of their bodies.

Children at this age will begin to use language to name their body parts and bodily functions. It is important to teach the correct words for body parts and functions. For example, they should know the words “vagina,” “vulva,” and “penis.” They should know “urinate” and “bowel movement” also. Children may be more comfortable using slang words, but it is also important for them to know the correct terms. Slang words are often confusing and may mean different things to different people. And children could be embarrassed when they do not know the right words. Children need to be able to talk to doctors, teachers, and other caregivers.

6-9 years old
During these years, boys and girls begin to look noticeably different. By the end of this time, some girls may start early stages of puberty. Both boys and girls may start sweating and needing deodorant. Pimples and oily skin may start to be a problem. These are early signs of sexual development, but children may not see them that way. The changes may just embarrass them.

Children often become curious about sexuality as they begin to go through these physical changes. They might show this curiosity in the ways they play with others. Some children may want to show other children their underwear or private parts. Some may try to see others’ bodies. It is still normal through these years for children to explore their bodies through masturbation.

Children learn a lot about sexuality through these years. They also learn much more about what it means to be a boy or a girl. Also, children may start using sexual terms to insult each other. Sexual language is also used more at this age, to call others names or to show others what they know. Children at this age usually understand the secrecy that surrounds sexuality as well as what behavior is appropriate in public. Adults can help children learn to use respectful and appropriate sexual language.

10-12 years old
In these years, children’s sexual development is very active. These preteens continue to be curious about sexuality, usually because it is very important to them now. Some girls start having periods, and their breasts begin to develop. Boy’s voices change, and they start to grow pubic hair. These changes can make young people feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, and suddenly very private. Masturbation can be helpful as young people start feeling new urges. They need to understand privacy, though.

During these times of rapid change, children often have questions about the physical changes their bodies are going through. It can be hard for adults to discuss these things. The young people start looking grown up, but they are still children. Young people also feel embarrassed. But it is good both for children and adults to talk about sexuality. Children at this age can gain a clearer understanding of sexuality through exploration and education. 


Working with parents

To deal with sexuality issues in your childcare program, share some information about the stages of sexual development with the parents. Talk with them about the words they use or the things that are important to them. Share with parents the experiences you have had with their children. Work together to help the children grow into healthy sexual people. 


Sources


  Sexual development: What should children know?




For more information, contact Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE at jmyerswa@purdue.edu

Please feel free to link to, print off, redistribute, or reprint
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