One child was just under 2 years old, and the other just past 2 when the adult walked in and saw them engaging in what was unmistakably a sex act, of the oral kind… This adult related the event to me soon after, horrified, and asked, “What is the right response?” among many other questions. One of those other questions was, “How would children that age even know how to do that?”
Reactions to these discoveries range from anger, to fear, to apathy. Rather than telling the woman what she should have done, I asked her what she did. “Why I marched them to the bathroom and paddled them good!” she answered.
I cringed, visibly. In the moments that ensued, we talked about why that response is devastating and counterproductive. In exploring that, the other question was also answered.
Whipping and spanking children for sexual touch–whether innocent curiosity or the shocking reenactment of adult behaviour in any form, sends the wrong message. In either case it is not possible for a child to understand what that behaviour is or means, and to spank simply imposes confusion on them and tells them sexual touch is bad. It’s not bad. It’s lovely. In its rightful place. And that is the message children need to hear from young on up, in age appropriate language. It is God’s design, and it is good.
Innocence is not preserved or reclaimed through silence; it is through healthy teaching that they are empowered and equipped. For a toddler or small child there is no need for a lengthy science or Bible lesson; a simple “your body is special and no one is allowed to touch your ______ (insert part)” is probably enough. (Older children can handle more information.) Explaining that boys and girls are different is also good, starting at a young age, as well as allowing conversations and questions on the subject. Making it taboo or dirty, serves to escalate the curiosity and guilt/shame often associated with what is a natural desire to know and understand. In this we feed the cycle of abuse and confusion in that the child does not feel safe coming to us, and yet wants answers.
And that is the next reason we do well not to react or paddle. It closes doors to trust and communication on a topic where both are critical for the child’s well-being, and results in teenagers trying to muddle their way through puberty, hormones and sex-drives with no one to talk to. Granted, it will still be awkward for some (probably many) but it at least gives them a reasonable chance.
Lastly, the child who has progressed to adult-like sexual behaviour is most likely reenacting personal experience. There is no way that a little child understands that behaviour without some molestation and sexual exposure of some sort. That is how they ‘know how to do that’ at such a young age.
Sexual interactions between children, when it moves beyond that ‘normal curiosity’ of wanting to know the differences, is not something to take lightly; we develop life patterns in the formative years. While both scenarios require guidance, the latter is a dangerous thing to neglect. However, to scold and punish rather than gently training and teaching, dumps shame and guilt on them for what they don’t understand as well as for what was done against them. That child will potentially, even likely, develop fear surrounding the topic of sex and is not likely going to tell anyone what was done against him or her, if asked, and will be pushed into deep denial. Out of that denial they often develop compulsive lying and deceptive behaviours, not to mention sexual addictions of various kinds at a young age.
On the flip side, by affirming their sexual identity–and I write here from a biblical worldview–we give them an incredible gift. To know, as a toddler, that we are made in the image of our Creator, and reflect something of Him in all of who we are, is a good thing.
Drawing from Genesis, I get a powerful message of identity… Male and female God created them; in His own image, He created them. That to me says, “In their sexual identity, as male and female, God created humankind to reflect something of Himself to each other and the world.” This identity runs much deeper than sexual organs or sexual behaviors, though these in their God-given place and context are part of it. It speaks of ‘all of who you are, as a man or woman, as a boy or a girl, is made in God’s image to bring honour to Him.
What part of that is not a thrilling reality? And does it not stand to reason that a child who grows up from early age on, understanding that he or she is made in God’s image, will do much better than the one who is paddled into a state of confusion?
Sexual interaction between children is nothing to take lightly; it leaves long-lasting scars, in many instances. It is also not something to overreact about. It is an opportunity to teach our children, and when it resembles adult sexual intimacy, it is a strong clue that our child has been exposed to something sexual. In such a case that clue, and what we do with it, can make all the difference in the world for that child.Talk to them, and find out what they know and where they learned it, in a non-threatening way, and give your child a safe place to talk. And, if in doubt, reach out to someone and get help and guidance. Your child’s well being depends on it.
This is but the tip of the iceberg, in relating well to children and sexuality. I have gained much insight and understanding, through cases I work with and individuals I go to for answers, and I continue to learn in every situation I face.
If you have some insight to share, or if there is a particular question you would like answered, please write using the Contact Trudy page. Together we learn; together we make a difference.