How should we handle my 3-year-old's foot fetish?

Q: My almost 3-year-old has a foot fetish. He has had this since he has recognized feet. He wants to see and touch everyone's feet. He even wants to see and touch mannequin's feet at the stores. This is both perplexing and a bit alarming to us. Is this a sign he will have deeper issues later and how do we handle this? He is advanced in all of his developments and gets along fine with other kids. This is really his only issue currently. Please help.

A: As adults, we sometimes forget that when a child does something, it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing or have the same reasons behind it as it does when an adult does it. Certain behaviors are appropriate for one age or level of development but not for others. For example, when an adult cries a lot, we may assume that he is depressed or that something terrible has happened; however, if an infant cries frequently, we know that it is his only way of communicating discomfort or unhappiness, and we usually don’t really worry about it. Similarly, toddlers often like to run around naked and are known to occasionally poop in their pants, and we accept these behaviors as “par for the course”, yet if an adult were to do these things we would have great concern! So just because a child does something that would be worrisome if an adult were to do it, it does not necessarily mean that there is a need for concern at all.

One of the major developmental tasks for a preschooler or toddler is learning about and exploring his world. This is best accomplished in a “hands-on” way, by touching and manipulating the world around him (go to any preschool or children’s museum, and you will notice that most of the learning is done through “doing” and experiencing, rather than just sitting and listening). Another main “job” of childhood is to have fun. And preschoolers don’t yet have the societal inhibitions that, for better or worse, come with age. You combine all of these things together, and sometimes kids do things which to us adults seems, well, a little goofy. Of course, if there are other concurrent problems, such as problems with development, inappropriate sexual behaviors, very bizarre behaviors, and so on; or if the child gives an indication that the behavior is related to some troubling belief or thought, such as that if he doesn’t engage in the behavior someone will die; or if a parent has a reason to believe that the child is doing something to another person’s body because someone has inappropriately touched him (in which case a parent should immediately contact the appropriate authorities), then a parent should seek the help of a qualified professional. But if a child is just exploring and having fun, parents should see the behavior as nothing more than that.

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Answered by Dr. Wayne Fleisig

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