Wed, 02 Jul 2003

Sex education should start early

Donya Betancourt, Pediatrician,

All parents want to understand their young child's sexual needs and your preschool child has a natural sexual curiosity that manifests itself in various ways.

One-third of all children, by their first birthday, have been observed stimulating their genitals. Boys typically pull at their penises and girls rub their external genitalia. Between the ages of two and five, one-half of all boys and one-third of all girls masturbate.

Occasional masturbation is normal and nothing to worry about. The child stimulates himself or herself simply because it feels good. Some masturbate because they are bored, unhappy or are reacting to punishment intended to stop the practice.

If your child masturbates, try not to get upset. Masturbation does not mean your child will grow up to be promiscuous or perpetrate sexual abuse. It is not physically harmful, nor does it cause emotional problems unless you overreact, especially by sending the message that sex is dirty, harmful or frightening.

Since it is difficult to stop a child from masturbating, it is best to focus on privacy issues. Explain to your child that it is all right to masturbate privately in the bedroom, but other areas are off-limits.

Besides self-stimulation, many preschoolers are curious about others' bodies. Young children may want to touch their mother's breasts or father's penis. Another child may be found half- undressed, playing doctor with the child next door.

Curiosity and lack of understanding of social taboos are usually the reasons for such activity. These situations are normal. Avoid showing shock or anger. Explain that just as others should not be sexually touching them, they should not be sexually touching others.

Stress that it is OK for your child to touch himself or herself in private, but it is not OK for others, even friends, to touch him or her that way except in special circumstances, like during a doctor's examination. Point out that this is true for adults as well as for children.

You do not have to lecture your child about sex when they are pre-school age but sex education should still start early, through your responses to their questions and behavior.

For early age school, your child may also make his or her first attempts to explore sexual activity while in grade school. As a result, this is a good age for sex education, if you have not already started it.

During the early school-age years, most children still occasionally play with their own genitalia, as they did in infancy and the preschool years. Studies have demonstrated that children who learn about sex from their parents are less likely to have sex before marriage than children who learn about sex from their friends. The younger your child, the simpler the advice.

The onset of puberty provides a good opportunity to educate your child about sexual development, whether or not you have already done so.

You can help prepare your child for the cascade of changes that his or her body will go through during the next few years. The goal is for your child to welcome these changes without shame or anxiety that they are occurring too quickly or too slowly. Be sensitive to such concerns.

At the same time, reassure your child that he or she is fine. It may help to stress that every child, including your child and each of his or her peers, is traveling along the same road toward adulthood and that everyone takes a different amount of time to arrive. If your child is a lot earlier or later than peers in puberty, he or she should be seen by a doctor.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that before they reach their early teens, children should know:

* The names and functions of male and female sex organs.

* What happens during puberty and understand that those changes signify moving into young womanhood or young manhood.

* The nature and purpose of the menstrual cycle.

* The act of sexual intercourse

We have the instinct to procreate, and because of this our species continues to grow, however, it is our intellect that allows us to act responsibly. Parents should keep open minds, stay flexible and help their families flourish with open honest communication and unconditional acceptance.