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How to stop four year old from kissing cousin?

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Dear Dr. Markham,
I have a healthy hyperactive 4 year old boy who requires lots of disciplining. He's very smart, sociable and curious. He's an only child, currently in Pre-K, in his third year of pre school.

My concern is that I've caught him several times talking his girl cousins into hiding with him to kiss- on the lips. His cousins are one year younger and two years older than him. I've caught him kissing each of them only, nothing else. The first time he actually talked his 6 year old cousin into undressing and then kissing.

When finding them I've talked to them both separately about this, telling them that this is something they should not do until they are grown ups. The last times I've found him (this is the 6th time) his father and I spoke to him and punished him by telling him he will not play with his favorite game for one week, which is a major pain for him. Yet I don't think this will solve the problem. He's very open with me and tells me that he wants to grow up to kiss girls.

I don't know if something like this is happening in school with his girl classmates. I doubt it, but will however investigate. He has never been victim of any abuse of any kind, I think and hope.

I am worried that he will become one of those abusive children who force other children into doing things that they don't want.
I am desperate. What should I do Laura?
Thanks in advance,


Dear Ana,

Four year olds have lots of curiosity and few inhibitions. It is not at all unusual for a four year old to strip off his clothes, masturbate, or ask a friend to kiss or disrobe. This is all completely normal behavior.

A focus on kissing girls is particularly likely if he's had any exposure to popular culture that includes kissing between teenagers. Your description does not suggest that your son has been victimized, as would explicit sexual behavior that a four year old wouldn't know about. There is also nothing in your letter to indicate that your son has forced anyone else into anything. Kids who use force on others are invariably kids on whom force has been used. (I do want to add, however, that if any of your discipline includes physical force, you would be teaching him to use force with others. Clearly, that is not a message you want to give him.)

So does the fact that your son's behavior is normal mean you should let him strip down and kiss his cousins? No, particularly because his three year old cousin by definition couldn't be considered a consenting participant.

How should you handle this? You have two goals: preventing the behavior, and preventing your son from feeling ashamed of his body and his natural feelings.

Explain to your son – without shaming him – that his naked body is special, and should be reserved for when he's alone in his bedroom or the bathroom. Kissing is also special, only for grownups, like getting married. His six year old cousin's parents (not you) need to have the same conversation with her.

It's fine for your son to look forward to kissing girls when he grows up. He doesn't actually understand what kissing might lead to; he is simply curious and wants to experiment with grown-up behavior. Most preschoolers think that kissing is what you do when you have a boyfriend or girlfriend and that it leads directly to marriage; unfortunately many adults in our culture think it's cute for preschoolers to express romantic interest in each other and encourage that. Tell your son that when he likes someone, he can express it by asking them if they want to hold hands when they walk together. Explain that we always respect other people's body space and we never touch others without asking first.

You may well be able to eliminate his kissing behavior simply by watching his TV and movie intake. Most media is suggestive these days, and kids imitate everything they see. A four year old should never see a PG rated movie, for instance.

As far as enforcement, prevention is always much more effective than punishment. That means that when he's with his cousins, they need to play under the watchful eye of an adult. Make sure the kids have plenty to occupy them constructively. If you do, at any point, find them kissing, don't make a big deal of it. Just say “Kissing is for grownups, remember?” Then engage your son and his cousin in another activity.

As kids approach their sixth year, they suddenly become modest and physically reserved, and usually begin to prefer friends of the same gender. Your son's romancing of his cousins is unlikely to persist more than another year. In the meantime, increased supervision should handle the issue.

I'd also recommend you look at the library for a good book on how to talk to your son about sexual issues as he grows up. My favorites are Debra Haffner's From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children From Infancy to Middle School, Second Edition and 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. It may seem early to start talking about sexual issues with your son, but you want him to stay comfortable talking openly with you and asking questions as he grows up. All parents feel uncomfortable talking with their kids about sex; good parents do it anyway.

Finally, I encourage you to relax about this issue. Your son is a perfectly normal four year old. Kissing his little cousins is a time-honored tradition. You don't want to encourage it, but it also doesn't mean he'll grow up deviant!

Dr. Laura Markham

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