Well I’ve never tackled this issue before but last week I had a mom literally beg me (slight exaggeration) to offer my advice on it. At first I said, “No way!” but then upon reflection I decided that if it is a real issue (it is) then perhaps other parents would benefit from some advice and maybe some parents will have had success with this particular challenge. Here we go…
There comes a time in the life of every little boy when they discover they have an appendage between their legs. Upon this discovery a fascination develops without the developed sense of social propriety; in other words they grab that sucker wherever they are. (I hear some parents saying, “Ha! You think that’s a toddler issue, you should meet my teenager.” Yes I know, but that’s a blog for another day.)
Now I should acknowledge that little girls deal with similar issues and while I’ve never raised a little girl I’m fairly certain that these strategies would work as well. Here are my thoughts.
- Don’t make a big deal about it! When you make a big deal out of a behaviour you want to change you really have the opposite effect. If a child learns that exhibitionism gets attention or laughter they will keep doing it. When you notice your child grabbing just simply address it with a smile. And don’t get stressed out either, this doesn’t reflect on you as a mom. kids do embarrassing things. Most important don’t shame your kids saying that it’s a gross thing to do in public or that sort of thing. Shame is devastating and grabbing and touching at a young age is a normal developmental stage.
- Gently divert attention. I think its important to acknowledge that even at a young age kids learn that certain actions feel good. I have heard crazy talk about how it is healthy to let kids masturbate and touch themselves and that is absolute nonsense; normal doesn’t mean acceptable – or healthy for that matter. However if it does actually feel good, kids might continue the behaviour as a coping mechanism when they are stressed. It’s important then to help them first by distracting them from what they are doing and perhaps suggesting something else that would be soothing (such as cuddle time on the couch, or a wrestling match with dad.) The idea is that you don’t even acknowledge the behaviour, you merely suggest something that would be better!
- Repeat often. Don’t worry if you need to repeat yourself often, probably the simplest definition of parenting is “repetition!” I can assure you that these little habits (picking their nose falls into the same category) are not done because your child is being bad or rebellious. Certain behaviour is normal and will take a bit of work (maybe a lot of work) to replace it with good manners or appropriate actions.
There are two exceptional cases though that I think warrant a bit extra thought.
- Kids with sensory issues. More and more children are born with sensory processing disorders. What that means is that in order to feel comfortable in the world around them they either need more of a particular sense or less of it (remember your senses are taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight.) There are all sorts of reasons a child might have sensory issues; for example substance abuse while pregnant or difficult deliveries or other trauma – even after birth. For a child who doesn’t know how to regulate their body they may completely freak out with a loud noise or even during worship at church. Other children may be extra sensitive to smells. And some will be deficient in touch which means they will desire touch and react differently to touch that other kids. This isn’t bad, it’s just part of parenting! But I raise the issue because if you have a child who needs touch he or she may touch themselves more. If that is the case the issue is more complicated than a normal developmental stage. That doesn’t mean the three strategies don’t apply, it merely means a parent will need to be more patient and compassionate to the issues the child is dealing with. I don’t believe that there is any condition known to man that God didn’t plan for, which means if you are patient and gentle and connect with your child in healthy ways, gradually behaviour will change. But I would say in this situation, more than any other, compassion is critical. Remember they truly aren’t acting a certain way because of rebellion, there is actually something else going on.
- Kids with anxiety. Ok we need to start with a teenage issue and then back down towards the preschooler. Most parents dread the sex talk with their kids and particularly the masturbation talk, but eventually it will be absolutely necessary if we are going to equip our kids to understand the world around them as well as the world within them. It doesn’t have to be a horrible experience but the reality is that it is usually a bit awkward. Many kids experiment with masturbation in their young to mid teenage years, but there are also a number of kids who will start much earlier. Certainly sexual maturity plays a role and when they fully enter puberty, however anxiety is another major cause of early masturbation in kids. This is interesting because if that is the case then when we approach the issue from as a sexual issue we may be entirely missing the mark, and therefore unhelpful. Anxiety is an issue that can start at a very young age. I know of one boy who became addicted to masturbating in grade 8 who remembers putting toys in his underwear as a child; incidentally he was a very anxious kid and teenager and adult. The problem then was not a sexual problem (although it might have become one later on) it was an anxiety problem. To lay a good foundation for an emotionally healthy life, kids need to know that they are safe! They need to know they belong and are precious and that mom and dad love them as best as they are able. There will always be kids who also have medical issues that contribute to anxiety but often anxiety stems from some trauma or an issue in the family. Of course that means that the solution often lies in relationships to our families and to God. If you are noticing behaviour that causes you concern talk to your doctor! They will have tools to help you assess whether there are emotional, relational or medical issues that underlie the behaviours you are concerned about.
One of the things that I think stresses parents out is that they don’t want their little boys (and girls) to be sexualized at a young age, but there are two things to remember 1) Their behaviour is almost never sexual, it is curious and 2) God created us as sexual beings and one day you will need to address that topic with your children. If nothing else this behaviour gives you a chance to talk about what is ok at home and when you are out of the house and who is allowed to see or touch us (mom and dad at bath time for example and the dr. who needs to help us be healthy.) These are great conversations that you can have a very young age.