Is 6 Year Old's Sexual Behavior Inappropriate?
Hi Dr. Laura. I am having some issues with my 6 year old son. He is all about being inappropriate lately. His new word is nipples, and he has gotten himself into trouble a few times at home using it incessantly. The other day he went so far as to say he wanted to kiss his sister's nipples! He will come up to me and pat my butt or my boob, and when he hugs me sometimes I notice he will strategically put his face or hand on my boob. Last year in kindergarten he got in trouble for pinching a little girls butt, and this year a boy on his bus gave him a drawing of two naked people that said "I love sex" on it. This is all really uncomfortable for me, and I am not sure how to handle it, or if it's even normal behavior. I would really appreciate any advice. Thanks, Erica.
Most parents are uncomfortable when their kids show interest in sex. Your son, however, seems to be responding to more than his own natural interest, which generally manifests as kids exploring their own bodies, masturbating, or possibly "playing doctor" with other kids. It sounds like your son is responding to stimulating discussions and drawings from other kids. Unfortunately, we live in a very sexualized culture, and protecting our kids from these influences is almost impossible. Our job as parents is to correct misinformation, help our kids maintain positive feelings about their bodies, and process any feelings that come up for them when they get messages about sex that are unhealthy.
In your question, you wondered how “normal” or inappropriate your son’s behavior is. When kids have actual information about sexual activity at a young age, that you have not shared with them, it can be a sign of sexual abuse. So it is possible that some adult or child involved your son in sexual activity that gave him the idea of kissing nipples. But I suspect it is more likely that just as another child on the school bus gave your son an inappropriate drawing, some child talked to your son about nipples. The titillating tone of that conversation was exciting to your son, but also tipped him off that this word would be considered "naughty." So when he brought the word nipple home and talked about kissing his sister's, he was testing just how you would perceive this word. He needs your help to sort out how to handle his excitement about these words and body parts that he needs to view as healthy, pleasurable parts of his body, but that seem to be viewed negatively in our culture.
You have three goals here. Your first is to help your son develop a positive view of sex and his own body. Your second is to help him learn what behaviors are socially appropriate. Your third is to instill in him a respect for the bodies of others – including his mom! Generally, I advise responding to kids’ sexual interest with acceptance and appropriate limits. How?
1. Educate yourself. Get your hands on a copy of this book, either at your library or used online: Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask): The Secrets to Surviving Your Child's Sexual Development from Birth to the Teens by Justin Richardson & Mark A. Schuster. This is the best book I've read on talking with kids about sex, and will help you to feel more comfortable talking with your son.
2. If you haven’t already explained what sex is to your son, it’s high time. One great book you might use to flip through with him as you talk is It's So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families (The Family Library) by Robie H. Harris & Michael Emberley, which is also probably in your public library. Even if you have discussed the birds and the bees with him, a review session is probably in order, as a preface to addressing his recent behavior. Sometime soon, flip through the book It’s So Amazing with him.
3. Introduce the idea that the body is sacred. As part of your discussion, explain that boys and girls have different "private parts" because they do different jobs in bringing babies into the world. Tell him that we consider these body parts private because they're sacred, part of the miracle of bringing new life into the world. Kids have to take good care of their bodies and not let other people touch these private areas because when they grow up these body parts have a big responsibility. That means he has to protect his own body, and respect other people’s bodies.
4. Introduce the idea of respect. Tell your son that you’ve noticed that he’s very interested in your breasts and butt, but that those are private and not to be touched by others. You love hugging him, but you need him to treat you respectfully and not to touch you inappropriately -- just as you treat him respectfully and don't touch him inappropriately. (And at this age, he should be wiping and washing his own genitals, rather than you doing it.) Similarly, touching or kissing his sister or anyone else’s nipples would be an invasion of privacy. That’s why the little girl whose butt he pinched last year was offended (besides the fact that pinching hurts!) Thereafter, if you notice your son strategically touching any appropriate area of your body, immediately point it out. Tell him that his touching you there is not respecting your body.
5. Process your own embarrassment or discomfort. As you have these discussions with your son, try to remain calm, accepting, and positive. You might be uncomfortable talking about sex with your son, as many parents are, but good parents take a deep breath and do it anyway. It is entirely possible that your son’s fascination with inappropriate behavior is a response to your discomfort – he knows he can get a rise out of you and feels powerful when he uses words that shock you. Many young children like to use sexual or "potty" words because they shock adults. That makes the child feel powerful and even "grown up." So the most important thing you can do when you son "incessantly" says "nipple" as you describe, is to relax and NOT over-react. It really is not a big deal. It is just a body part, and in fact it is a wonderful, amazing, pleasurable body part. It's okay for him to be excited about it. (Remember, feelings are never inappropriate, although behavior may be.)
6. Help your son process his anxieties about sexual innuendo. Your son is clearly excited about sexual ideas, or he wouldn't be grabbing at your butt and breasts, and asking to kiss his sister's nipples. But this is unusual for a six year old, and I would say it indicates some anxiety about these body parts. We don't know what has sparked these feelings, but we do want to help him process them. What your son needs is to laugh, which vents anxiety. So next time he begins using words you consider inappropriate, use it as the opportunity to play a silly word game, and begin shouting nonsense words in response to him. If you're silly, he will laugh and be silly also. As long as he's laughing, he's getting his anxieties out, and he won't be driven to engage in behavior or vocabulary that he knows is off limits.
7. Teach appropriate cultural standards. Tell your son that words for certain body parts are not considered appropriate in public. Add that you do not want him getting used to using impolite words, so he is allowed to use any word he wants when you and he play silly word games, and in the privacy of his own bedroom, but not in general conversation in your house. Then, if he does use a word that you have said is off limits, try to stay calm. Launch into a silly word game with him. Get him giggling. When you're ready to stop, remind him that this is a private word. Stay calm and kind and say "Okay, Sweetie, I'm not joking now. I'm done playing. That's a private word, so if you want to use it, you can use it in your own room in private."
I'll close by saying that your son's actions are showing you that something is going on for him that is unusual for a six year old. Your job is to be calm and kind and help him process his feelings. That way,
- You help him with the feelings driving his inappropriate behavior and language, so he doesn't need to engage in it.
- You protect his positive feelings about his body, instead of making him feel ashamed.
- You keep things safe enough that if there is more he needs to tell you about what is spurring his interest, he'll be able to do so.