On a recent evening, my cousin's 4-year-old son ran into the closet after his bath. Suddenly, he threw open the door and proudly exclaimed to his mother and twin sister, "Look at my penis!" Such public displays happen almost every day, my cousin bemoans. "He'll show it off to anyone, anywhere, anytime."
Many 3- and 4-year-olds are oblivious to the notion that their private parts should be, well, private. Preschoolers often develop a fascination with their genitals and -- as with everything else they're learning about -- are eager to share their discoveries with others. Although you may not be sure how to react when your son repeatedly sticks his hands in his pants or your daughter plays doctor with a friend, keep in mind that such curiosity is perfectly normal for kids this age.
Children are sensual from birth. Since they're continually cuddled, rocked, fed, and bathed, their lives revolve around their bodily sensations. By preschool age, kids express their sensuality more overtly, doing all sorts of things that make their bodies feel good -- whether it's running as fast as they can, splashing in water, or finger-painting. And since many 3- and 4-year-olds have recently graduated from diapers -- gaining greater access to their private parts -- they've discovered that touching their genitals is particularly pleasurable and soothing. Some children touch themselves frequently and may do it unconsciously at bedtime or when playing quietly; other kids masturbate only rarely.
At this age, your child is also starting to grasp the concept of gender identity -- that boys and girls have something different in their underpants. "Three-year-olds are learning that gender is permanent and that having a penis or a vagina is the most important part of being male or female," says clinical psychologist Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting(Ballantine, 2001) and a member of the Parents advisory board. This greater awareness of gender differences heightens a preschooler's interest in his own and others' genitals.
However, your child's exploration is scientific, not sexual. "Her experiments may look like play to you, but they're actually serious study," says Deborah M. Roffman, a human-sexuality educator and author of But How'd I Get in There in the First Place? Talking to Your Young Child About Sex (Perseus, 2002). For example, when a boy covers his penis with a cup and shouts, 'Look, I don't have a penis anymore!' or a girl holds a stick to her groin to pretend that she does have one, they're testing the hypothesis that genitals can't change or disappear.
Preschool boys, in particular, may seem to get very silly about their private parts -- face it, they'll probably be talking about penises for many years to come -- but it's best not to overreact. By ignoring your child's exhibitionism, you'll take some of the thrill out of it. "When your child pulls out his penis and jokes about it, don't scold him," Dr. Cohen says. Make it clear, however, that this sort of behavior is acceptable only at home.
For similar reasons, you should expect that your child will masturbate. "That way, you'll be more relaxed, nonjudgmental, and matter-of-fact when you catch him in the act," Dr. Cohen says. "It's crucial not to make your child feel ashamed." Empathize with his desire to do something that feels good, but gently tell him that it is a private activity that he should do in his own room. If your child masturbates in public, try to give him something else to do with his hands. However, if he is doing it constantly and seems unable to be comforted by anything else, Dr. Cohen says, consider the possibility that he's stressed, bored, lonely, or anxious.