What to do when toddlers discover their genitals

Q: My 2-year-old son has discovered his genitals and spends what seems like a lot of time playing with himself. How can I get him to stop?

A: The toddler years are the age of exploration, a time when your child investigates his world and learns about all the great things he can do with his body. Giving him as much freedom as possible to explore is critical to his developing sense of autonomy and self-confidence.

Like it or not, almost all toddlers go through a genital self-exploration phase, and it’s especially common right around the time when they start making the transition from diapers to big-kid underwear. After all, when they were wearing diapers all the time, their genitals were pretty hard to grab hold of. But now that they’re accessible nearly all the time … (Reminds me a little of George Carlin’s quip: Why do dogs lick their crotches? Because they can.)

Still, it’s a little discomfiting to watch a child play with his or her own genitals, and it’s hard to resist pulling the child’s hand away or snapping, “Stop that!” Maybe it’s all those stories we heard about how masturbation causes blindness or turns kids into perverts.

Whatever your reason, try to resist the urge to step between your child and his genitals. Making a big deal out of it can give him the message that that part of his body is dirty or that touching it is somehow wrong. For a little boy, “his penis is no more interesting than any other part of him,” says pediatrician Fitzhugh Dodson. “It is only when we react as though there is something bad or naughty about it that we teach him to become morbidly interested.”

The same obviously goes for little girls. The truth, of course, is that “our toddlers will only develop sex hang-ups if we teach them to,” Dodson says. At home, the best plan of action is to neither encourage nor discourage genital exploration. In public places, however, gently redirect your child to another activity, telling him that private touching should be done in a private place, such as his own room in his own home. In addition:

Teach the correct names for human body parts —including penis, vagina and rectum —just as you did for belly button, nose, and elbow.

Explain physical differences between adults and children. Adults’ pubic hair (as well as hair on the chest, under the arms, and elsewhere) and adult-size genitals are of special concern to kids. The simple for kids this age is that as you get bigger, everything gets bigger, and that when you get to be a grown-up, you get hairier.

Talk about touching. It’s simply not OK for anyone (adult or child) to touch a child in his or her private area — except if the adult is a doctor or a parent bathing a child or changing a diaper. Bathroom privacy (closing the door, knocking) is also a good topic to bring up now.

Don’t punish or chastise your child for his behavior or for touching himself or others. Simply redirect him to another activity.

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