What To Do When Your Toddler Plays With Their Genitals

Private parts don't start out private

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If Earth were visited by aliens, they could probably figure out the majority of human anatomy. That’s because most human parts serve a demonstrable purpose. But they might get a little hung up on genitals, which don’t have an immediately apparent function — aside from looking strange and causing people to scream, “Hey, creepy alien! What did you do with my clothes and where are you planning to put that probe?”

Like an alien, a kid really hasn’t been on earth that long. So they’re just as fascinated with what’s between their legs as an E.T. might be (which is admittedly a troubling image). Still, it’s time for parents to consider why that fascination is not such a terrible thing.

“In fact, it’s a good thing,” says Debbi Roffman, sex educator and author of Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person About Sex.

“Children’s first school is their own body,” Roffman says. “They learn about the world from the inside out.” A parent’s job, then, is to normalize that schooling without any hint of shame.

Curiosity Pulled The Peen

Curiosity is a serious motivator. And right now curiosity is a super good thing for your kid. It’s what motivates them to learn and develop like a normal human being.

“Children notice differences and then they have to accommodate for those differences,” Roffman explains. “So not only is touching their own genitals pleasurable, it feels different from touching other parts of their body, like an earlobe.”

There’s a reason curiosity about genitals hits around toddlerhood. If your kid is potty training, they suddenly have super easy access to the parts below the belt. They’re also very aware of what’s happening during potty time and diaper changes.

“Children are paying attention to things that happen around that part of their body,” Roffman says. “It seems to be very important. They are watching us to see how they should react to things. We’re the data that they have.”

So wanting to figure out what those parts are all about is completely natural. Parents should expect that there will be tugging, probing and questions.

Comfort And Pleasure

To understand some of this behavior, fathers, in particular, should think of the last time they were really cozied down. Maybe there was a beer on the end table, feet kicked up and a game on the tube. And maybe, just maybe, a hand tucked under the waistband of the sweatpants. Of course, it wasn’t sexual, it was more about feeling relaxed and secure.

Kids do this too. Sometimes genital touching is just a way to feel some kind of comfort. Often it’s unconscious. And if it’s normal for a dude lounging and watching the playoffs, why have a double standard for a kid? Yes, girls too.

“Touching vulvas and penises feel good,” says Roffman. “Both male and female bodies have sexually arousable parts on the outside of their bodies.” And she points out that they are arousable from birth because they are wired to the central nervous system’s experience of touch.

But please remember that as adults, parents associate that arousal with adult sex. It’s hard to shake that. But a kid doesn’t have that context or frame of reference. All they know is that it feels nice. Like the sun on the face and sand between the toes. So, chill.

What’s Normal

There is a wide range of toddler behaviors that might make parents feel uncomfortable. And that discomfort is largely due to an adult perspective based on adult experiences. Here are some things a kid might do that are totally natural:

  • Touching themselves both privately and publicly
  • Using hands or objects to rub their genitals
  • Getting naked
  • Showing their genitals to others
  • Exploring or touching peer’s genitals

What To Do

There’s a refrain in the realm of parenting advice that will be repeated here: take a deep breath. The last thing a parent should do is come in hot and freaked out with a privates player. Roffman advises calm, collected compassion. Also, the reaction should shift depending on the setting in which it happens, except for one: a kid should be asked if they need to pee. It may be that simple.

At Home

A parent should not to scold, yell, or chastise. That’s the sort of thing that could make the behavior far more interesting or even cause feelings of shame that linger into adulthood. Instead, it’s better to just ignore it.

After all, says Roffman, a child doesn’t just pick up differences in the sensations between body parts, they also pick up the difference in parent’s reactions to the body parts they touch. “If you react in a negative way, it’s very confusing to them,” she says. “If the look is disapproving they have to figure out, ‘Why that look? Because this feels good.'”

If the child is old enough to understand the concept of “private,” parents can direct them to their room. But Roffman notes those concepts generally don’t emerge until 5 or 6-years old. If parents are compelled to mention their genitals while making this request, they should use the right words. Call a penis a penis and a vulva a vulva. The last thing a parent should do is shame them.

In Public

Don’t make a scene. Instead, parents need to get down to their level, take their hand and explain that there are some things they should not do in public. A younger kid may have no idea what this means. But the important part is to distract them and keep calm and loving. Outside of the home, but in a place with family and friends, parents can simply try to set a kid up with something else that will keep their hands busy.

It’s important to remember the little aliens are trying to figure all this stuff out. And their senses are totally on fire. Parents are the earthling with all the experience. Sadly that’s not helping. Maybe watch Close Encounters and see if that helps at all.

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