Sexual Play Between Children

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

My son turned five years old last week. Two months ago I found him and a friend in his bedroom with all their clothes off. My son was wiping his friend’s bum with toilet paper and there was poo on it. I asked them as calmly as I could why they were doing that, to which they answered it was called the baby game. I told them about respecting each other’s bodies and left it at that.

Then last week my son was playing outside in our yard with his cousin, who is also five. I stood by the window and heard my son say, “if you poo in your pants, I will wipe your bum. You can use one of my undies.” She obviously did not want to. He carried on saying the same thing and then said, “I will be your friend if you do it.” She then said matter-of-factly, just to get him off her case, “okay, but I don’t feel like pooing now.” Five seconds later, he said, “remember you promised me you will poo in your pants. Do you want to poo in your pants yet?” I noticed that while he kept saying it, he kept touching his winky which was now showing an erection! I interrupted them and distracted them with some TV-time, but I felt really confused!

Then last week another friend from school also came to play, and when I went to check up on them the exact same conversation was playing itself out. My son was continuously asking the same question, and his friend was obviously not interested in this “game.” My son seems so obsessed with this. I braced myself and peeped around the door and true to my fear, my son was pulling on his own winky again, and again I saw an erection!

Could it be that it is just a game for him and the thought of “poo and pee” makes him feel like he wants to wee, which results in an erection, or should I worry? How am I supposed to react? I am embarrassed to invite friends over.

Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Lesley Laub Huizenga, Ph.D. (Child Psychologist): Many parents have asked themselves, “is my child’s sexual play normal, and how do I handle it?”, so you are not alone. It is typical for a 5 year old to be interested in bodily parts and functions such as your son’s fascination and play around defecating, and it is also normal for children his age to engage in mutual sex play with same age children infrequently. It is also very common for young boys from infancy on up to have erections outside of sexual stimulation. It is wonderful that you remained calm when addressing your son and his friends and did not make a huge deal out of the situation. By doing so, you are avoiding causing any shame and keeping communication open so he will talk to you about these matters in the future.

Your talk with him about respecting other people’s bodies was fitting. You may need to sit down with him and have a more detailed talk about privacy and personal safety. Depending on your preferences and beliefs, explain to him that sexual exploration of his own body is appropriate in private, but that exploring his friends’ private parts is not appropriate. If you find him engaging in sexual play with others again, you can then remind him about respecting each other’s privacy and redirect their activities just as you did before.

That said, there are a few issues that do raise possible concerns in your situation. While sexual play is normal, there are some signs in sexual play that may indicate possible sexual abuse. Preoccupation with sexual play, like your son is showing with his repeated and ritualized bottom-wiping in his “baby game” is a possible red flag. Also, the fact that he appears to be possibly coercing other children into his sexual play is another red flag. A simple inquiry on your part to determine where the ideas or examples for this “baby game” came from might help you to know what further steps you need to take. Keep the questions simple, such as:
• “What were you doing?”
• “How did you get that idea?”
• “How did you learn about this?”
• “How do you feel about doing it?”

If your inquiry does not leave you feeling confident that your child’s sexual play is of innocent origins and you worry about possible sexual abuse, please seek profession help. Many national organizations like National Children’s Alliance and Child Help USA have helplines and can refer you to the appropriate place in your community. Another possibility is the community mental health center in your city or county.

Amy: Thank you for asking and sharing this question. I feel that the more we talk about and work through difficult situations like these, the more we allow ourselves and our children a full, honest experience of life.

I will get straight to the points in question. Please pardon my directness, it is softened by love and acceptance, so if you can feel that first it may be easier to read from this point forward.

What causes a child to want to play a game of baby where he asks a child to “poo” in his pants and then proceeds to wipe the child’s bottom?

There are several factors that may influence a child to play such a game. Children are naturally curious and the private parts of the body are generally off limits or hold special interest because of the culture’s views about them. If your son has been around a baby lately some interest may have been sparked about the care of babies, specifically elimination and diapering. Aside from natural curiosity and the fact that private parts and elimination are especially interesting, it is possible that he learned this game from someone else. You may inquire in a non-leading, non-judgmental way to ask him about the game. It is likely that it could be difficult because of the strong feelings present. To relax and center yourself, focus on the action of breathing as you prepare to talk with your son, and continue this inner focus as you talk with him. Ask him about the game as if you are asking him about a game of tag. How does he play it? Where did he learn it? Has anyone played it with him? Is there anything he wants to tell you about the game? Just listen as he answers and notice how you feel. You might also bring to mind how much you love him so he can feel that as you talk through whatever comes up.

If you get any answers that indicate someone else has played this with him, someone has touched him inappropriately, or something else just doesn’t feel quite right, you may opt to seek additional assistance from a professional you trust. This isn’t something you have to handle alone.

What correlation could be present between your five year old son having an erection and playing such a game?

It is normal for a boy’s penis to experience an erection when he needs to eliminate (urine or bowel movement). It is possible he could experience the same sensation if he witnesses another person eliminate. That part of the body is very sensitive and we begin making unconscious and conscious associations about it in relation to life and other experiences from birth. Again, if your son learned this game from someone else or someone touched him inappropriately during a diaper change or clean up, then he got some outside influence that deserves attention to undo.

Is it appropriate to invite friends over after observing your son’s interest in this game?

Your son does not need to be in quarantine for this behavior. You do get to be very aware and proactive to make sure it does not occur with other kids, though. First, determine where it’s coming from, whether outside influence or natural curiosity. Second, teach him appropriate names for the genital areas of the body, what touch is not appropriate, what touch is appropriate, and other appropriate baby games he can play that allow everyone to keep clothes on and eliminate in private. The article What Children Should Know about Sex through the Developmental Stages by Thomas Haller outlines important information to share with your son about his body and sexuality at varying ages – start now. When friends come over, keep bedroom doors open and encourage them to play in family areas so you can make sure play is appropriate. Don’t make it about that game; just play with them or facilitate games as much as possible and look for the positive. This will eventually pass, although it may take time.

How are you supposed to react? Should you worry?

We react the way we react. We can hide, jump to anger and conclusions, brush off situations and pretend they don’t matter, or look them in the face head on. It sounds like you may be wondering how to react directly to your son so he is not shamed, yet is provided with the information he needs to work through this and learn something new in place of this game.

Worry points to something needing attention. Take the steps above to address your concerns and the situation will shift, one way or another. Also, spend some time soaking up and appreciating your son whenever you can with some suggestions in the whole body camera. It is so easy to focus on situations that worry us, only to see them blow up in our faces or eat up all of our time and attention. It doesn’t have to be this way. You have the ability to work through this – and you are!

Mandy: There could be several possible things going on. A baby game could indicate a need to feel taken care of or a need to take care of others or even to explore bodily functions. The behavior could be indicative of a growing awareness of sexuality or even possible abuse (or misguided play with others). It could be anything. Since you know your son and are around him on a daily basis, you are the one who is most likely to be able to accurately interpret the reasons behind this sudden behavior. The best advice I can give to you is to sit down and talk with your son. Being open and honest with our children can help us to determine what is going on and help them through various situations.

If the behavior is based on an interest in bodily functions, you might check out books such as The Truth About Poop, The Gas We Pass, and Gee Whiz! It’s All About Pee. It’s Not the Stork is a good introductory book about reproduction and body parts. While I haven’t read them, reviews of I Said No! and Your Body Belongs to You look promising.

I wouldn’t want to brush off the behavior or ignore it. An honest, open discussion about the behavior, complete with why the behavior was deemed unacceptable, would be a necessity for me. I also recommend using proper terminology for body parts with your child. As you sort through this situation, you may want to have supervised playdates. Involve the kids with an activity where you have a small role, such as helping them with craft projects or making cookies. That way you can keep an eye on any behaviors.

I hope you find the reason behind the behavior and wish you peace and calmness as you talk to your son.

Chris: Your question certainly raises several concerns. Does your son act this way because of self-exploratory play? You may need to grapple with the prospect of some sort of abuse. And no matter where this has come from, your son needs to learn appropriate boundaries.

Talking it out isn’t likely to produce the results you need, especially not quickly enough. I think a better way to communicate about this issue is by using dolls.

I’d recommend getting three dolls – one represents your son, while the others are a male and female doll. Play with him and the dolls. Ask him how they interact. You can use the dolls to teach him appropriate and inappropriate ways of touching and play. If the male and female dolls are adults, he may be able to show you if and how he might have been abused.

It may take many tries with the dolls to make progress. Be patient, consistent, and loving. Good luck – and as always, don’t forget to love your son.

13 Responses to Sexual Play Between Children

  1. Janine  

    I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you for posts like this. While not relevant to me or my family just yet, there are so few parenting sites that tackle these issues, and obviously these are hard topics. Please keep doing what you’re doing, which is helping & educating & building better, healthier families and society as result.

  2. Leila  

    Parents, use your common sense and protect your children from the consequences of your neglect!

    The solution is simple and freak-out-free. Keep your eye on your children, don’t let them play behind closed doors, and focus on what healthy play for their age is. These little boys should be running around outside, climbing, jumping, and coming in to make roads for their toy trucks. If they are taking off their clothes and exploring their bums, they are bored and neglected.

    Always listen to what your children are telling you (underneath their words), don’t let them play at others’ houses if you aren’t sure that the parents have the same level of vigilance, and work actively to promote modest behavior. It’s fine to think about the causes of this type of behavior, but don’t over-think — these things happen, but our job is to guide our children on the right paths.

    This doesn’t happen “naturally” – it takes work — it’s called parenting. The payoff is raising human persons with self-control and a sense of self worth.

    • Dionna  

      Hi Leila, thank you for reading and commenting. I want to try to understand a little better where you are coming from – do you feel it is neglectful for any parent to leave any children playing together alone? Or are you specifically referring to this unique situation?
      If it is the latter, I must ask that we try to be gentle with this mother who is obviously hurting and reaching out for help. The fact that she a) heard the conversations (so was within earshot) and b) is seeking help tells me that she is being proactive.
      If it is the former, that you believe children should always be supervised, I’m wondering how that would work in many homes. For example, my son has several friends who come over to play frequently. In the beginning (2 yrs ago), yes – I watched them all the time. Not only were they young (older toddlers/younger preschoolers), but I also did not know what kind of play to expect from his friends after their mom left. But after regular play dates, I relaxed – I trust them. I still check in with them and keep an ear open, but it would be unrealistic for me to follow them around from room to room so they were always in sight. It would also be unrealistic to expect them to stay in one small room playing – we would all go crazy. And in our state, we often have rain and snow during the fall-spring months – we can’t always go outside.
      If I were the mother of a child who had participated in these situations, then yes, I would be much more vigilant.
      I feel like I’m not understanding your comment, so feel free to clarify!
      Most of all, we hope that NPN can be a safe, respectful place where parents can openly discuss even hard topics peacefully.

    • Amy  

      Thank you for sharing, Leila. Thank you also for asking for clarification, Dionna. I agree that we are intending to create a safe space for parents, where ever they are on their parenting journey.

      Well meaning, loving parents who value self-control and self-worth can end up in a situation like the one highlighted. I’ve talked to plenty of children and parents who have experienced sexual inappropriateness and/or abuse while not being neglectful or neglected. We’re not sure how that may or may not play into this particular situation and we address it straight on.

      In situations like this the answer may or may not be “simple and freak-out-free”. It really depends on the family and person. The mother’s concern points to her vigilance and desire to nurture healthy boundaries for her son. Thinking deeply about the situation may help her find answers and make necessary decisions, while she guides her son appropriately.

      I sincerely appreciate the helpful points of your response. It would be lovely if things like this did not happen, but they do. Please consider that children who would do things like those mentioned are not necessarily bored or neglected; they may have experienced some influence of someone who has ill intentions or allowed curiosity to go too far.

      Either way, there are non-harsh ways to express our knowledge and experience on such topics and I do hope that parents reading realize that no one has all of the answers all of the time. We do the best we can at the time with the knowledge and experience we have, learning as we go. Compassion and kindness go a long way also.

  3. Sarah @ Parenting God's Children  

    What a difficult topic to tackle – although this doesn’t pertain to my parenting journey at this point, I’m appreciative that I can count on my NPN Mentors to openly discuss these situations. I think so many times we struggle with how to deal with situations similar to this mother’s and can’t bear to bring it into the open. I like what Amy said about the importance of openly talking – what an example for our children.
    I also want to add that I think this mother did an amazing job at staying calm and continuing to love on her son, though this situation is obviously stressful. I think that would have been hard for most of us! So great job, mama! And thanks to the mentors for such well thought out responses, I pray they help!

  4. Leila  

    It’s such a wake-up call to find oneself in the situation the writer described. It happens in the best families!

    And of course, there can be more to it than just curiosity and boredom. So, as I said in my comment (which I did not intend to be harsh, so please forgive me), it’s always good to think about all the implication of things and listen to one’s children.

    It’s important to approach this issue with great prudence, making rules for oneself as the mother — and letting children play in bedrooms with the door shut is just not prudent.

    It’s actually quite natural, in one sense, for children who are completely left alone, to engage in the kind of behavior the writer describes. But it’s not good for them. To clarify, I think it can mean that something untoward has happened, but it can also be completely innocent in one sense. It might be a mistake to go looking for a deeper cause than that the children were left alone for too long, and that the door was closed, giving them a sense of detachment from adult supervision. Again, you would have to listen to what your child says very carefully.

    My only point is that if you want to avoid the situation where your child comes to be abused, then start with simple common sense. I do feel that many moms don’t realize that they should not allow children to play with doors shut!

    I think that “keep an eye on” conveys the level of scrutiny that I think would be wise — not following them around, but not completely ignoring them either!

    The times I have let myself neglect this Rule for myself, I have regretted it. I think there is a wonderful balance between giving children the room to play and have fun, with plenty of freedom, not feeling smothered with scrutiny, and making sure they are engaged in healthy, appropriate activity. I think that the parent with common sense can pull it off. The best way is to have the doors open!

    Thanks for the chance to clarify, and my dearest hope is that parents give their children freedom and sensible limits.

    • Jennifer W.  

      I think in the scenarios shared, common sense has already been applied and these events happened anyways. No one said anything about being behind closed doors: one was even in the open, outside. The mother was there and available to intervene when she felt the discussions were becoming inappropriate. So the questions answered were applied to that concept. I guess I am missing the “common sense” that would apply to the given situation? Or were your comments just a general sense, and not pertaining to this question?

    • Amy  

      Thank you for clarifying, Leila. I think “common sense” isn’t always common, meaning that since we each come with our own upbringings and such we may or may not realize shut doors can be an issue, until they are. I feel strongly about having them open, but have known people who thought that was not trusting the children. We each come from our own perspectives and yes, it is helpful to be near our children when young and especially if we have concern, which it seems this mother was (both near and concerned).

      Finding the balance between freedom and sensible limits is definitely part of the parenting journey and I am grateful we can have conversations here to talk openly about our perspectives and experiences.

  5. Susan

    Thank you for this article. A couple of months ago, I walked in on my 4 yo with her 6 yo male cousin. They were in the bathroom, she was naked, and after getting her evaluated by professionals later that week, it was determined he touched her. I learned this can be developmentally normal, although inappropriate. Both parents need to address this with the kids. I have. And my daughter is and will be OK.

    The problem is that my entire extended family has essentially disowned us for looking into this. I feel if more people were educated on sexuality and children — and felt more free to talk about it, such events might not destroy a whole family. Thanks for spreading the word and encouraging dialogue. In this case, the act itself was handle-able for us. The loss of our entire family is very painful for all, especially my daughter who doesn’t understand (and I just downplay it because I don’t want her to feel at fault or even connect the two events). Thanks again.

  6. Amy  

    Thank you, Susan, for having confidence in your daughter that she is and will be OK. That will definitely influence her as she grows. Much love to you and yours.

  7. Jamie

    Thank you so much ladies, although this post is a year old sharing your fears and wisdome and stories is still helping people :)I was refered to this page after i found my 2yr old girl breastfeeding her almost 5yr old male cousin. Kids do experiment and although EVERYONE reassures us its ‘normal’ we need to be vigilent, aware and trust and guide our children- thats our job. Thanks again ladies- especially Susam and Amy

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