Parents sometimes are concerned about possible sexual interaction between their children of different ages. This concern was illustrated in a question I received from a mother of three. She asked:
"I found my three-year-old daughter in a room with my seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. It was very quiet in the room, and that's very unlike them. I don't know what they were doing, but I sensed a lot of curiosity. It seemed to be secret. My caregiver also says there seem to be a lot of physical games going on. They want to hug and kiss and after watching The Lion King, they lick each other. My sense is these activities are different from plain affection. I can't put my finger on it, but I feel uneasy."
This is a complex and emotionally loaded issue for all of us. The guidelines for normative behavior are vague and based mostly on our own parents' strictures and our own experiences of childhood sexual play.
I'll start with what is absolutely intolerable: Any evidence of the use of force or coercion, bribery or abuse of a position of power calls for an immediate halt.
Mild and severe abuse often does occur between siblings and it's not always a younger child being exploited by an older child. Bigger age spreads leave more room for unintentional but damaging exploitation. Sex play of any kind is especially contra-indicated between children in different developmental stages.
Freud "discovered" and explicated infantile and childhood sexuality. He observed stages starting with very early oral-genital pleasure and self-stimulation; moving to masturbation; and by age five or six to interest in the genitalia of peers, adults and group sex play and mutual touching. Playing "doctor" appears to be almost universal. Eric Erickson said: "Such experiences, unless blocked by guilty fear, contribute to continued pleasure from sexual stimulation." (He was referring to adulthood.)
How do we decide how much, if any, sex play is permissible, and how do we avoid engendering the above mentioned "guilty fear?"
YOUR ATTITUDE IS CRUCIAL
In your own home, your attitude and feelings are crucial as they determine messages you convey about bodies and sexuality in general. The messages determine whether or not you leave a legacy of increased guilt and shame. As Sol and Judith Gordon write in their book, A Better Safe than Sorry Book (a guide to prevention of sexual abuse for younger children), it is extremely important for you to be approachable on the subject. Make it clear that you are open to questions and discussion. You can initiate discussion about sexuality and exploitation with each child at his or her own level. The children then know it is a legitimate subject and that you want to hear what they have to say.
GOOD SECRETS, BAD SECRETS
As your children haven't yet chosen to inform you of this activity, you may wish to raise the subject of good and bad secrets with them. Bad secrets are those where the child or someone else is being hurt or feels ashamed, guilty, confused or forced. These secrets shouldn't be kept. This leaves an opening if one or more of the children are neither enjoying nor capable of understanding the experience.
Your children's behavior can serve as another indicator of how they are experiencing the sexuality. If you find drastic or subtle but enduring mood changes or a sort of feverish excitement and over-stimulation, or a graphic sexuality in other play, these may all serve to indicate that you should actively intervene.
If your children are playing with the door closed, you can open it. You can walk in. You can ask, "What's going on?" in your best non-judgmental inquiring tone. Certainly more specific details from your caregiver will be important, just as it is important to clarify her attitudes and what messages she may be conveying to the children.
PARENTS NEED TO BE COMFORTABLE WITH THEIR CHILDREN'S SEXUALITY
Last, I will address the feelings of discomfort. Many of us are uncomfortable in the presence of others' arousal/sexuality. The discomfort may indicate that something is inappropriate or potentially damaging. But, for the most part, parents are made uncomfortable by their children's eroticism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, etc. You want to remember that you do want your children to find sexuality fulfilling and pleasurable ... at some point. You can let them know now that their sensations and desires are healthy and that there is nothing wrong or bad about children who do engage in sex play.
Given that, there are myriad variations on the limits:
- You may want to limit only time and place;
- or ensure that you are not a witness;
- or stipulate a no-underclothes-off rule, etc.
In order to decide, it's worth remembering what you did with whom when you were young, what you enjoyed, what you wish you hadn't done, and what you didn't do and wish you had. Then think about how all this affected your sexuality today.
What is finally important is that the messages you give about whatever decision you have made should strike a balance between protecting from the above-mentioned negative possibilities while not giving guilt-inducing, shame-inspiring messages which can inhibit children's future sexuality.