I wanted to write in to get your thoughts on a recent issue my wife and I have been dealing with concerning our little boy (4yo). He’s been going to preschool for about 6 months and during that time he has had about 5 incidents of inappropriate touching/ behavior. It started off with him and a group of others pulling each other’s pants down on the playground to look at their private parts. The next time it was him, one-on-one with another boy on the playground, looking and touching each other privates. This one he brought to our attention as the teachers didn’t realize it was going on. The next time was during a nap time and when going back to his mat from getting a drink of water, he visited two other girls’ mats and asked if he could give them both a kiss, which, according to my son and the teachers’ accounts, they were compliant. Still inappropriate, but just to clarify that it wasn’t aggressive. The next time he and the previous boy were hiding under a bean bag looking and touching again.
All of these instances were met with lengthy conversations with him about boundaries, appropriate touch, and inappropriate touch. His reasoning and responses have always centered around the idea that he didn’t think it was wrong at the time, he’s curious about other kid’s private parts, and that it feels good. My wife and I have always been very open with our son about the human body. He doesn’t know about sex yet, but we go out of our way not to make the human body a taboo thing to talk about. At home, there are few boundaries when it comes to him seeing us nude and vice versa. For example: when we take showers, the most we will do is close the door, but he, on occasion walks, in if he needs us. We don’t walk around in the buff, but if he sees us, it’s not a big deal.
This all leads to yesterday. During nap time at school, he snuck off of his mat and stuck his hand down another boy’s pants. He was caught by one of the staff members and he was separated from the class until they could reach me or my wife. He said the other boy was complicit and that they were laughing while doing it. He told us that he was curious about by the boy’s penis looked different (i.e. circumcision). The school originally suggested that he leave the school entirely, but after speaking with them more, they moved him to their other campus in town to have a fresh start. New kids, new teachers, new environment.
My question is, is this in the realm of normal developmental behavior? My wife is freaking out that our son might be moving into deviant behavior, but he’s never done these actions with any sort of aggressive action. It’s also not something that occurs outside of school when he plays with other friends. We are looking around for child psychologist in our area just to be proactive and not let this slip away from us. We’ve already begun looking at how we can scale back our language and behavior at home, thinking that perhaps our open policies may be confusing him at school. What’s appropriate at one is not at the other. What would be your recommendations about ways of talking to him as well as any book recommendations on the subject?
I hear you. It’s not only stressful to worry about your son’s well-being, but also deal with the social ramifications of his behavior as parents in a school system. You and your wife are appropriately worried due to the frequency of these seemingly harmless and curious behaviors. It is entirely normal for a child of his age to be curious about bodies, and kissing and various things that seem sexual in nature. Without the right hormones and brain development, these things are not sexual in the adult sense. They are what you might call pre-sexual (or if you are Freud – “the phallic stage”). This stage passes into the next called the “latency” period as kids ages 6-10-ish are generally asexual.
It’s pretty typical for a child to do something similar to what your son has done once or twice around his age, however, they usually stop the behavior if told to do so. It may not mean much, but that said you are on the right track seeking out professional help. Hopefully, there is nothing abnormal going on and he is just a very curious kid. He will grow out of it, especially as he learns to keep better boundaries. You don’t want to shame him but it’s important that he learn how to respect others, regardless of his curiosity. That too comes naturally with age.
My advice to you on talking to him about it is to become a “loving broken record.” Repeat again and again the importance of keeping his hands to himself, respecting others bodies, and reminding him what is appropriate in private versus public, like his classroom. The “loving” part of this is that you do your best to keep shame, blame, and anger out of your voice.
On a very important side note, it would also be crucial to find out if he has been sexually abused or exposed to any explicit material, to rule out any outside influences on his behavior.
All the best to you guys, doing this tough work of parenting. I sincerely hope you get the support and help you need.
p.s. Here is a great book list for parents who are raising children and want to help them navigate their changing bodies and their emerging sexuality.
Kids and Sexuality Book List