The birds and the bees – Part 1: Sexuality development in young children

How can parents support healthy sexuality development?

Children begin to understand intimacy through nonsexual positive interactions with loving adults like hugs, kisses, holding hands or cuddling.
Children begin to understand intimacy through nonsexual positive interactions with loving adults like hugs, kisses, holding hands or cuddling.

The early years of a child’s life are characterized by rapid growth and development as children gain control over their bodies and minds. During early childhood, children are engaged in exploration and a search for understanding of themselves. This exploration takes place internally by discerning their identity as an individual and externally by exploring how they fit into the world. It is the job of parents and caregivers of these young children to assist them in this journey by providing unconditional love, support and encouragement during their development.

This adult support lends itself to all areas of development, and to one specifically that often causes wide-eyed panic and anxiety: sex. Sexual health and sexuality are important topics of discovery in early childhood. Although they can be some of the most difficult and dreaded topics for parents to address, they are also some of the most important.

Children’s understanding of sexuality

One of the big issues many adults have with addressing sex and sexuality development with young children is a misconception about how children perceive sexuality. One reason adults are so uncomfortable with children’s sexuality exploration and development is that the intentions and motives of the child get misinterpreted. A child’s exploration of sexuality is different from an adult’s in that it is fueled by curiosity and is often spontaneous and open and does not come from a place of adult sexual desire. In this exploration, children do not share the motivations or meanings that sexual activities hold for adults; instead they are trying on adult roles and other characteristics of sexuality in order to try and understand them.

To children, sexuality education or exploration refers to a process of self-discovery. Sexuality doesn’t just refer to the act of sex or intimate relationships. Part of each person’s identity is discovered through their sexuality, including gender identity, or how a person identifies with traits typically associated with different genders.

Sexuality health can also prepare children to engage in intimate relationships throughout their lifetimes. By having an understanding of their sexuality, children can learn to set appropriate boundaries for themselves and their bodies, and learn to respect the boundaries of others. They have the opportunity to learn how to recognize and respect their own boundaries for affection, intimacy or physical touch, preparing them to navigate the personal relationships they will experience as they get older.

Healthy sexuality development

Just like other areas of development, sexuality development occurs as a process where each child moves along at their own pace, and this process begins in infancy. In “Responding to the Subject of Sexuality Development” by Mary Sciaraffa and Theresa Randolph, published in “Young Children,” they describe the process of healthy sexuality development:

  • Infant to 18 months. During the infancy stage, you are setting the scene for your baby about respecting their bodies, interacting with loved ones and showing affection. During this stage, children start to build an understanding of being male or female and begin to understand the behaviors of their gender. They begin to understand intimacy through nonsexual positive interactions with loving adults like hugs, kisses, holding hands or cuddling.
  • 18 months to three years. Children continue to learn about their sexuality during this stage using information communicated by their parents and other adults. They may begin to understand they are a boy or a girl and start to identify other people as male or female. Children will have a normal curiosity about private body parts and begin to identify them by name.
  • Three to four years. During this stage, children start to build a more detailed list of the differences between males and females and they will often show or express that they are curious about sexuality development. They may ask where babies come from and the physical differences between the genders. Children may engage in curious play or exploration, including lifting up a peer’s skirt or peeking down a teacher’s shirt. This is a normal part of sexuality development and provides an opportunity for adults to help children learn boundaries. You can teach children there are parts of our bodies that are private and they have the right and ability to refuse unwanted touches, and they should respect the boundaries of other people as well.
  • Five to six years. Children will begin trying to inhabit the characteristics of adults they see that match their own gender. They are still curious about their bodies and where babies come from and may engage in play about these topics or even compare body parts with their peers. Children may show a worldview related to gender stereotypes, such as pink is a girl color and only boys can like superheroes. They may often play with same-sex peers. It’s very important to help children during this stage set boundaries with their bodies and be able to say no to unwanted touches like hugs, etc.

How to support sexuality development

  • Be open and honest. Adults can help children develop a healthy understanding and expression of their sexuality by teaching them proper anatomy, naming body parts correctly and teaching them bodily functions are normal, healthy and not something of which to be ashamed. When we give body parts nicknames, we are teaching children it’s not something that can be talked about openly and honestly, or it is something shameful. As difficult as it can be, it is important to use anatomically correct terms and open accepting language in order for children to get the whole picture. This honest language helps children learn the facts without confusion and teaches them that sex and sexuality are normal, healthy processes. Your openness shows your child you are open and willing to be a resource and guide.
  • Teach boundaries. As young children grow and mature, it is important the adults who care for them help teach and model the concept of boundaries. Children need to understand other people have personal boundaries that need to be respected, and children need to feel empowered to set their own limits for other people to respect. These boundaries can include preferences for touch (hugs, kisses, cuddles) or privacy. Teaching boundaries also includes sharing your personal and family value systems with your child.
  • Encourage exploration and curiosity. Just like going to the department store and trying on different pairs of jeans until you find the ones that fit just right, children need the opportunity to try on different characteristics or traits to see which ones fit them best. Little boys trying on princess dresses is a completely normal way for them to learn about and explore different personality characteristics, gender identities and roles, just as girls asking why they can’t go to the bathroom standing up. It is also important for children to explore these roles so they develop an understanding of the things that make humans different and unique and the things that unite us.

Overall, talking openly about the birds and the bees may still make you uncomfortable, and truthfully that’s OK. You are not alone. By understanding and respecting sexuality development in early childhood, you can provide opportunities for children to learn about sexuality in an environment that is open, accepting and one in which they are comfortable and willing to ask questions, learn and explore.

For more information, check out the American Sexual Health Association or Advocates for Youth.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website and check out the upcoming articles in the Birds and the Bees series.

Other articles in this series

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