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Exploring Body Parts – What to Do?

What does a parent do when their three-year-old walks around with his hands in his shorts?  Is this normal?  Should it be allowed?

Children will engage in body exploration and this is normal.  Touching of genitals usually results from their need to explore everything! 

Boys usually begin genital exploration or play at approximately ten months and girls at about one year of age. Even though this is typical, how you feel about it is important.

Some information to consider:

  • Children may feel their genitals absent-mindedly when they feel bored, tired, stressed, or just listening to a story or watching television.  Other times, it has simply become a habit.  In the case of a habit, it may be helpful to substitute a more appropriate object such as a soft stuffed animal.  Directing the child to other activities might also prove helpful.
  • You may choose to ignore your child’s behavior.  Other times, you may want to communicate there is an appropriate time and place for this behavior. By three and four years of age, children can be taught that it isn’t good manners to play with their genitals in public.  Lastly, you may object altogether to this behavior.
  • If you object to genital touching, carefully explain the reasons rather than simply insisting the child stop.  It is important not to punish the child or make the child feel badly.  Your actions may communicate that the genitals are bad or dirty.  These feelings may last a lifetime. 
  • Say privately to a child who is touching his or her private parts in the middle of the living room or in front of guests, “I know that touching yourself in your private area or on your penis/vulva makes you feel good, but that’s something people do in private.”
  • All of us hope our children will develop a sense of basic decency.  Most of us also hope that our children will grow up proud of the way their bodies are made and be respectful of the feelings of others.  Communicating with children about human sexuality can be funny, scary, hard, bewildering -- and very important.

Prepared by: Cheryl Geitner, Youth Development and Family Life Educator, Knox County Unit Spring 2001, Revised 2006.

Editor: Patti Faughn, Family Life Educator, Springfield Center, 2006.