Sex Exploration


My five year old son is currently in preschool and will attend Kindergarten next year. I took him and his seven year old brother to eat and play at McDonald's today as a treat during the seven-year-old's spring break. My five year old pulled down his pants and showed his private areas to the older boy who was playing with his brother. I remained calm, but took the boys home and explained that we wouldn't be going to the movie. I also explained to my youngest son that this behavior is inappropriate and will not be received by his peers or teachers. I'm not sure what else I can do! I suspect that he wanted attention and to play with the older boys and got a reaction. I was very disturbed by this behavior!


Hello, Ellen. I am a licensed marriage and family therapist and one of the co-authors of several of the Positive Discipline books. The sort of sexualized behavior you describe in your letter is always disturbing and embarrassing to parents, but I believe it may be a valuable opportunity to teach and explore boundary and privacy issues with your son. It sounds as though you already did this very well – and, adding the punishment (because of your fear and embarrassment) was not necessary. You will understand why when you read the attached excerpt from "Positive Discipline A-Z."

It is quite normal for boys this age to be curious about their private parts. Most touch themselves and have figured out that doing so is quite pleasant indeed. In most instances, the best approach is not to be shocked or disgusted, but to teach that private moments belong in private places, such as his bedroom, rather than at McDonald's. Boys do sometimes expose themselves to each other, and it's possible your son has witnessed this sort of behavior from other boys and was simply mimicking it. Again, remaining calm and kind but firm will help your son learn what he needs to know and will avoid making this into an opportunity for misunderstanding or power struggles.

Do pay attention for a while; if your son continues this sort of behavior, you may want to consult his pediatrician or a skilled therapist who works with children. Continued sexual behavior can sometimes mean that a child has been touched inappropriately by someone else, a situation that may require intervention.

Best to you,
Cheryl L. Erwin, MA, MFT
Certified Positive Discipline Associate

Sex Exploration and Sex Education

"I caught the neighbor boy and my five-year-old daughter with their pants down. I don't want to punish her, but I don't want her playing around sexually. I don't know how to teach her propriety regarding sex."

Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

It is very difficult to find an adult who didn't engage in some form of sex exploration or curiosity about the sexual organs as a child. The desire to explore sex and the sex organs is normal, not bad. (See Masturbation. We are not talking about sexual abuse, which is covered as a separate topic.) Good sex education can help a child have information about how the body parts work, what is normal and what is not, how babies are made, what it means to be sexual, and confidence to say no to an older child or adult who wants to take advantage of him or her.


1. When you catch your child exploring sex or sex organs with another child of a similar age, this is a clue that he/she is ready for sex education. Do not scold, embarrass, humiliate, or shame your child. Let him or her know it is okay to be curious about sex and all the body parts. Tell him/her you will answer questions and explain how things work, but you do not want him/her playing "doctor" or "show and tell" with other children, because the sex organs are a private part of the body.
2. Talk about respect for self and others. It is not respectful to involve other children in sexual displays or exploration – publicly or privately.
3. Avoid punishment as this is likely to provoke kids to take their sexual explorations "underground."
4. Ask your child what questions he/she has about sex or the penis or vagina or breasts (use the correct words). Answer the questions honestly and without embarrassment if you can. Do not give more information than he/she has asked for, unless you feel it is needed. Use your common sense to help you know how much your child can understand.
5. Go to the library together and check out some good books on sex education, suitable for your child's age level.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

1. Find some good sex education books designed for small children and start reading them to your child when he/she is two or three years old. At this age, he/she won't understand much of what you arc reading, but will still enjoy the book. When he/she is older and the neighborhood kids try to give him/her information, he/she will be able to say, "Oh, I already know all about that."
2. For ages two to ten, while you are tucking your child into bed at night, occasionally ask, "Do you have any questions about sex or how your body works?" The answer will usually be no, but you are establishing that sex and conversations about how the sex organs work are valid topics of conversation, just like school or toys. You may need to keep answering similar questions over and over as your child becomes older and is able to understand more.

3. For ages six to eighteen, children today see more explicit sexual interaction on television and in movies than their grandparents fantasized in an entire lifetime. They need to talk with adults about what they are seeing. Draw them out by asking what and how questions: "What do you think about what you are seeing on television? How do you feel about it? What conclusions are you making? How do you think this will affect your decisions about sex in your own life?"
4. As your children grow older, give them information about why they will benefit from postponing sexual activity until they are adults. As adults, they will have greater emotional maturity and wisdom. Hopefully they will have the self-confidence and self-love to do what feels right for them, instead of feeling that they have to please others at their own expense. Kids need to know that if someone says, "If you love me, you will have sex with me," or "If you don't have sex with me, I'll find someone else who will," they should run in the other direction as fast as they can.
5. We should not use the threat of AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases to instill fear and guilt--that often invites kids to rebel. Information about these diseases should be given in a matter-of-fact way that encourages kids to listen and make intelligent decisions.
6. Tell your children you will explain any word they hear that they do not understand, and that you want them to ask you questions if their body does things they don't understand, like discharges or emissions or menstruation. It is best to let your child know ahead of time about these things and that they are normal, so he/she doesn't have to live in fear of being weird or having some life threatening disease. Be calm no matter what they ask--and don't pass judgment on the friend who said the word. If you need help answering questions, ask the physician to answer what you don't know or find books and other resources to put your child's mind at ease.

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can learn that sex is a wonderful part of them and of life and that their sex organs and their functions are normal and not to be feared or be ashamed of. It is okay to discuss anything with their parents, who will give them honest and helpful information. With the right kind of information, they can make the right decisions for themselves, no matter what anyone else thinks.

Parenting Pointers

1. If you are embarrassed about sex or think it is bad, this is the message your children will receive. They may adopt your attitude or simply decide to hide their feelings, questions, and actions from you. It is not what you say, but how you say it, that has the greatest influence on your children.
2. A study of 1,400 parents of teenage girls in Cleveland found that 92 percent of the mothers had never discussed sex with their daughters. If you are uncomfortable talking about sex, share that with your child and why. Then talk about it anyway.

Booster Thought

A little girl suffered as a child because she could not discuss sex with her parents--they were too embarrassed. When she was six years old, a neighbor boy wanted to show her how to "f***." He took her to a barn and told her to pull her pants down and squat. He then proceeded to urinate on her bottom. Later the little boy told all the other kids that he had "f******" the little girl. This information followed her all through elementary and high school. About once a year, she became the topic of ridicule. The kids would chase her around the yard and tease her about having babies in her belly. In junior high, the kids would pass a note about her reputation. When she walked into the room, they would hide the note and start giggling. As she matured, she started getting propositions from other boys, who believed in her bad reputation.
Sex education was so lacking that this little girl did not know she had not had sexual intercourse or that, even if the little boy had known how, it would not have been her fault and she was not bad. The little girl is a woman and can laugh about it now, but sex education or honest communication with her parents could have saved her a great deal of pain.
And, lastly, you may ask yourself as parents, what is your ultimate goal in giving sex information? Is it just to inform? Probably not. Is it merely to help your child keep out of sex difficulties as he/she matures? No, it is more than that. Is it not to help your child to look at sex in such a way that he/she him/herself can one day grow up to have a happy, successful, and responsible sex life? If you keep this goal in mind, it will help you to know what to say to your child and how to say it. [footnote: Ilg and Ames, The Gesell Institute's Child Behavior from Birth to Ten, 142.]

 Past Questions

Questions now answered on the Positive Discipline Social Network



Jane Ed.D. Nelsen, Lynn Lott, and H. Stephen Glenn


  Positive Discipline A-Z

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As a parent, you face one of the most challenging—and rewarding—roles of your life. No matter how much you love your child, there will still be moments filled with anger, frustration, and, at times, desperation. What do you do? Over the years, millions of parents just like you have come to trust the Positive Discipline series for its consistent, commonsense approach to child rearing. In this completely updated edition of Positive Discipline A–Z, you will learn how to use methods to raise a child who is responsible, respectful, and resourceful. You’ll find practical solutions to such parenting challenges as:

• Sibling Rivalry
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• Getting Chores Done
• Eating Problems
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