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Your Child Curious About Her Friend's Body Parts? Experts Assure It's Not Sexual
PHOTO BY @Xiao Jiang/iStock
  • When we were young kids, watching television was a family thing. Besides the fact that most households back then owned only one TV, watching the same show ensured that adults were monitoring what shows the kids were exposed to. Thus, as necessary, we were told to cover our eyes whenever an “inappropriate” scene would be shown onscreen (including, but not limited to, kissing scenes).

    I only know this because this went on until before we reached our teens, but truth be told, I could not remember any of these “forbidden” scenes or shows from when I was much younger. That said, it makes you wonder, do adults think that little kids are already sexual at this age?

    Recently, a fellow mom asked our friends chat group in confidence if it was normal for a 4-year-old to be “very interested” in the body parts of a playmate of the opposite sex. She was too embarrassed even to ask after she noticed her daughter doing that. She was “scandalized,” to say the least. 

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    Justin Richardson, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, tells Parents that it's typical for kids this age to have a natural interest in their peers' bodies. As preschoolers, they are now paying more attention to each other's characteristics and differences.

    “It is also normal for siblings and same-sex friends to be curious about each other, which can come up in situations like bathing together or changing into swimsuits,” he adds.

    How do you deal with a child’s curiosity about the body?


    1. Understand what it is (and what it’s not).

    Kids aged 3 and 4 are starting to have a concept of gender, but not of sexuality. Dr. Richardson says that at this point, an interest in body parts is only indicative of a healthy curiosity and nothing else. Not even when — and don't be alarmed when it happens — a boy this age gets an erection.

    “At this age, it doesn't indicate sexual attraction or fantasy,” says Dr. Richardson. Erection at this stage can be triggered by anything that stimulates the nervous system — even a change in temperature, he adds.

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    2. Keep your reaction in check.

    It's natural to be surprised (and maybe even panic a little) when you see your 5-year-old or her same-age playmate without clothes and “inspecting” each other's anatomy. Compose yourself and distract their attention. Ask them to put on their clothes and bring them to the kitchen for snacks. Making them feel like it was something shameful might make them feel anxious.

    Nonetheless, in a more appropriate time, do tell your child that it's best to keep her clothes on, especially if you have guests over. Reinforce the lesson when you can with age-appropriate materials and books.

    3. Set boundaries.

    Situations like these are windows of opportunity to teach valuable lessons. Agree on rules that may be relevant to playdates, including keeping clothes on, staying in common areas so the adults could watch them, and keeping the doors open.

    “These situations are a good opportunity to begin teaching respect for others,” says child-development expert Betsy Brown Braun.  It may also be time to introduce the concept of consent to your child, and teaching her that she should not allow other people to touch her body.  But don’t expect her to understand the idea right away fully.

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    Says Deborah Roffman, sexuality and family-life educator in Baltimore, “Children don't adequately understand the concept of privacy until age 5 or 6, but at 3 and 4 they are beginning to understand the concept of rules.”

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