What is normal sexual behavior for young kids?

A new study released in Pediatrics on Monday details what are normal sexual behaviors for young children and what behaviors are cause for concern.

Here is the link to the full study in Pediatrics but U.S. News and World Report did a lovely job summarizing it.

From Nancy Shute’s column in U.S. News and World Report:

“Here’s the list of what the pediatricians say is normal, common sexual behavior in 2- to 6-year-olds:

  • Touching/masturbating genitals in public or private
  • Looking at or touching a peer’s or new sibling’s genitals
  • Showing genitals to peers
  • Standing or sitting too close to someone
  • Trying to see peers or adults naked”

“But we parents also need to know when a child’s sexual behavior is not normal. The pediatricians say that sexual behaviors like these are rarely normal and can signal physical or sexual abuse:

  • Any sexual behaviors that involve children four or more years apart
  • Different sexual behaviors displayed on a daily basis
  • Sexual behavior that causes emotional or physical pain
  • Sexual behavior associated with physical aggression
  • Sexual behavior that involves coercion”

I used to work at a church daycare center in high school and college and saw many of the behaviors on the first “normal” list. I don’t think I ever saw any on the “bad” list.

The teachers and administrators at our school are very into what behaviors are developmental and are quick to reassure parents that certain behaviors they see are A-OK and age appropriate.

What do you think of these lists? Do you agree the first group is normal for 2- to 6-year-olds? Do you try to discourage your child from doing these “normal” things or do you just let them be? Or do you try to tell them do them in private?

What would you do if you spotted any of the non-normal behaviors with friends’ kids, neighborhood kids, or even your own?

27 comments Add your comment


September 1st, 2009
9:16 am

Wow…what a bold topic! I’m sure this will make some people VERY uncomfortable. Anyone that has little kids knows they can be downright embarrassing sometimes. When my little guy would touch himself in public or around others at home (while watching TV, etc.), I would tell him, “It’s ok if you want to do that, but you need to do it in private. Those kinds of things aren’t things you do in front of others.” I also try to remind him of people’s personal space.

I did notice that after his summer @ daycare with swimming, he was showing a little more modesty! It was kind of cute!


September 1st, 2009
9:32 am

It has been LONG time since mine were little.

I do have one comment though, if something seems awry and we look the other way, we are failing our children. I was furious at the neighbors of the 11 year old who minded their own business while that poor girl was kidnapped for 18 years and bore 2 children. I always try to be aware of odd things in our neighborhood because if something were happening to my children, I would hope someone would be there for them.

I am frequently told stories of children whose vocab is quite informed, as far as sex and this usually is a red flag that something is going on. It is happening more often too.

Robin Geaney

September 1st, 2009
9:37 am

I agree with the first list, and the second list makes since too. My neighbor growing up demonstrated some of the behaviors from the second list and her stepfather is now in jail for raping her from the time she was seven till she was eighteen. As uncomfortable as it may be I would say something if I believed there may be more to their behavior. This could save the child from a lifetime of abuse.


September 1st, 2009
10:41 am

MJG what is considered extensive knowledge ‘at that age’ can be different among parents. I have friend who does not tell her child (2nd grade) anything about sex, boys or whatever for fear she is encouraging her child to do that behavior.

My children both know that sex begats babies (sometimes I grant you). My eldest (9) and I had a discussion on condoms yesterday.


September 1st, 2009
11:03 am

This first list is about curiosity between children of the same age, during the same stage of development.

The second list deals with abuse.

Pretty easy to see the difference.

New Step Mom

September 1st, 2009
11:04 am

We are struggling with my step daughter very little and asking me questions that her mom does not want me to answer. I wish I could just tell her the mechanics and be done with it.

Thankfully, I have not been around a child that exhibited the second set of behaviors.


September 1st, 2009
11:30 am

I totally agree with both lists. This is really, really good stuff! Parents need to know what is proper and improper sexual behavior for their children, so they won’t overlook potential problems or stifle their child’s natural development. Bravo AJC for publishing this short!


September 1st, 2009
11:33 am

Living in a rural town, the attitudes toward sex veer more toward fanatical than reasonable. I understand the need for modesty in some circles, but our children are not living in a bubble. I would rather them have good information from me than misinformation from their friends. I remember having “the talk” with my mom and by the time she was done with me, I was scared witless! It just does not do the child justice to feed them such warped views on human sexuality – in my humble opinion.

I chose to talk to my son much sooner and much more candidly. I did speak to him about personal space and about some things, that while natural, should be done privately. I agree with most of the posters that the first list seems more slanted to natural occurances, but the second list seems to be dealing more with abuse issues.

I must admit, for me growing up, things in the second list just weren’t talked about. In hindsight, I know they existed, but people would not discuss it. Even today, there are people in our town that probably would not even say the word “sex”. Having children of my own now, I would shout it from the rafters if I saw any of the behaviors in the second list.


September 1st, 2009
11:35 am

@ FCM…I agree with you. When my children asked me, they were told the answer in the most matter of fact way possible.

No trying to offend anyone but….

I am talking about children who can demonstrate ( say) how to perform oral sex. I had a teacher tell me that she saw a FOUR year old girl try to initiate it on a fellow classmate and clothing was already undone but nothing happened yet. YIKES.

xavier&jaydens mom

September 1st, 2009
12:20 pm

All too many times parents are in denial that there children are even aware of what sex is! You have to take the blinders off and be open and honest with your kids. Not talking about it or explaining to them what is happening to their bodies, and pretending that is not going on, just leaves them open to discss this with their friends who are just as naive as they are. The only difference, the friend may have an older sibling that has a warped understanding about sex as well, and hence the snowball effect begins. I was raised by my grandmother, and she just did not believe in discussing sex or anything of that nature. The only thing she ever told me was to stay away from the boys, and if I kissed someone I was going to get pregnant!! You can imagine my devastation when this nasty little boy kissed me on the cheek in 3rd grade!! I must have cried for a week, for here I thought I was going to have a baby! Needless to say, a more sane relative calmed my fears and explained this to me, but granny was content with letting me believe that! She even scolded me for “letting it happen”!! My boys are 6 and 8 and we talk about sex in a straight forward manner. We discuss good touching and bad touching, and how your body is your body, and you don’t touch without permission! We even have discussions about doctors touching, because some children are trusting of their pediatricians, as they should be to a certain extent, but doctors shouldn’t touch either unless mommy and/or daddy are in the room! I have a 22 year old step son that has been sexually active since he was about 11 years old!! He was expelled from school on numerous occassions because he was so sexually charged. He had a sexual harrassment charge in the 7th grade, and all his mom had to say was “well if the girls are going to give it to him, let him get it!” WTH!!! Little girls are looking for the love that they are missing from their parents, the first person that shows them the slightest bit of interest becomes their hero!! They will do anything to please that person, just so they can feel the love. Not openly discussing sex with your children often times sends the wrong message, children will seek comfort/answers/advice/truth from whomever they can get it from- most times, its not the truth you want them to have.


September 1st, 2009
12:32 pm

These lists are OK until political correctness becomes involved by some observing political activist. Then all things get skewed and THAT is about as worse as the abnormal children sex behavior.


September 1st, 2009
12:42 pm

I talk to my 2 little ones openly about who touches you where and when..Had to take the girl to the emergency room a couple of weeks ago and she had to be checked down there..The Dr. ( who looked about 25 or so) told her when he touched her that he could only check her because her Mommy was in the room with him..As they get older, yes I will talk to them in more detail about sex and anything else they need to know..One thing is for sure, they will know that they can always talk to me about anything…


September 1st, 2009
12:57 pm

This topic is right on time. I have a 2yr daughter who has recently started touching her genitals alot. I thought at first that she was irritated or had a rash. But, that’s not the case. Especially during bath time she is fascinated with her genitals. My husband sometimes moves her hand away, but I don’t want her to feel that its wrong to get use to her own body. I just wish she wouldn’t do it in church. That gets a little embarassing.

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

September 1st, 2009
1:14 pm

Guys — I ran into New Mom at the Target this morning! She looked awesome pregnant (due very soon!) Very fit but a good size tummy! and her oldest is just precious! I haven’t seen New Mom since high school!!

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

September 1st, 2009
1:15 pm

On topic — I really do appreciate that our school recognizes that the self-touching is developmentally appropriate in the little guys and also even show and tell — I’m glad to know our teachers are trained in what’s “normal” and what could indicate a problem — I do like this list – I’m glad you guys like it too.

new mom

September 1st, 2009
1:41 pm

Theresa, you are too kind! I feel like a cow! ;) But it was GREAT to see you, you look just like you did in high school. Shhhh, we won’t talk about how long ago that was….

On topic, so far the only behaviors from the lists we’ve seen from our almost two year old are her occasionally trying to touch herself during her diaper changes, and she always wants to watch mommy potty or shower. I had already heard about what to expect, and I’m not concerned.

And now, after said target trip, I am exhausted…and have got to lay down!


September 1st, 2009
3:12 pm

My sister-in-law is of the “if I don’t tell them they won’t be inclined to do anything” as if children in elementary school don’t discuss their bodies and, in later grades, other people’s bodies that they’ve LOOKED AT. I have a niece and she doesn’t like when the boys are in the room when the baby is getting changed. She said they don’t need to know about that. WTH is wrong with saying “boys have penises. girls have vaginas” like my favorite kid in “Kindergarten Cop”? I think that’s ignorant. What is she going to do when they come home talking about p***y? (My mama said I came home in kindergarten asking how you do p***y. Needless to say she had some explaining to do RIGHT THAT SECOND!)


September 1st, 2009
3:48 pm

x and j mom…try to calm down…take a deep breath. Trust me, I know how rattled the morons can make you feel but it is not worth it. IMHO these folks are bold enough to condemn but not bold enough to post with a clever blog name or post with anything that may be worth a hoot.
By the way….I have written very long posts and Theresa has NEVER gotten on to anyone about writing an article. If there were limits, I would have been kicked out forever ago.

@ Theresa, I was just thinking about newmom today…glad she is doing well!

Here is one a teacher in Texas told me…the class was chanting and one boy said,


In case it has been a while for some of you…the correct version is KNEES AND TOES.

xavier&jaydens mom

September 1st, 2009
3:50 pm

I apologize for getting out of order on your blog! I normally don’t let people get under my skin, but this person just rubbed me the wrong way! I will leave the blog for the day, as I don’t want this to continue, and if this person says one more out of the way thing to me or about me, we are gonna dance, and it won’t be the Two Step!!! It will be the RUMBA!! have a great day everyone, and please watch your children.


September 1st, 2009
6:18 pm

MJG, that visual cracks me up!!! I can see little boys enjoying “head shoulders penis toes” along with the motions.


September 1st, 2009
6:20 pm

I walked in on a five year old fornicating with a hole in the bathroom waiting area. NOT NORMAL.

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

September 1st, 2009
7:26 pm

Hey xavier&jayden’s mom — I am so sorry I missed that troll being ugly to you — I have deleted the comments (and also some of your replies only for curse words). Don’t let them upset you — Sorry I missed it earlier in the day!!

Zachs Mom

September 1st, 2009
8:40 pm

just a funny story…when Zachary was 5 ish he had an undecended testicle fixed right before t ball started. He had to sit out the first game and when his team mates asked him why he said, ” I had to have surgery…want to see my scar?” Needless to say it was hysterically funny when he pulled down his ball pants and took his little cup off to show everyone. The parents of the one little girl on the team didn’t think so. It has turned into one of those stories we will test out on girlfriends…kinda like the neked baby pictures.


September 2nd, 2009
2:27 pm

I’m a first time mom of a two year old daughter. This article has helped me a lot and has given me some good information of different signs. I still think I will be alarmed if I saw my 2 year old masterbating, but at least now I know that it isn’t uncommon. Thanks for the information.


September 16th, 2009
4:51 pm

I have two sons, one, 18, one 6, the youngest is showing alot of interest in women’s bodies, mostly breasts. It seems to be aimed more at my breasts than anyone. We have an open and honest relationship and talk openly about what is wrong and right when it comes to touching , who shouldn’t touch and so on. He has been asking to touch my breasts and makes odd comments, it makes me very uncomfortable. I have asked his teachers/daycare if he is having any sexual behavior with other kids( girls) at school and he is not. I am confused by his actions. Does anyone have any ideas?


September 28th, 2009
12:03 pm

The society, the government..media has created a sex crazed situation..adults are using children, the tide is changing, giving children 4-5 yr old children explicit sex info..politicians are normalizing the activities as part of the curriculum, we will see more about this as the Federal sex-ed bill comes into play..the global guidelines will be used SIECUS GUIDELINES..
Read this ..teaching children-ugly..the government says this keeps kids safe..

California had this in the news….
When a few parents in Palmdale, California learned that their children’s school had permitted researchers to interview first, third and fifth grade students about such things as sexual urges and fantasies, they became outraged and took the matter to court.

There are organizations for even the youngest children labeled as sex abusers, as they are sexually aggressive..it is a manipulated problem..for decades the children have been manipulated..take back your kids.

My thought lose the TV..and treat your children like the sweet innocent children that they are…or meant to be..if they are acting out, know you have to find out what is going on and stop it..teachers aren’t always honest either, be careful…many situations in schools.
If possible home school..maybe with a group of moms..create your own situation..

It is all about the kids..protect your children.


September 28th, 2009
12:23 pm

I’m not saying kids are not aware of sex ..but children/kids really do learn at their own level and timelines, and do not necessarily need to be taught and asked rather odd questions in schools, which is what is happening…I do believe there is a movement to over sexualize the kids, using TV and schools and normalize the parents to accept particular behavior. But then notice all the groups around gathering all the children molesting children.

The global guidelines have been used successfully for years, they say, in many states..but I just don’t agree.