Modern Family: Kids' Sexuality—What's Normal?

Maybe every generation of parents feels this way, but it seems as though all the rules about childhood have changed since I was a kid. The latest example involves that once cherished tradition, playing doctor. You know, "I'll show you mine if you show me yours"? I grew up in the 1960s, believing that playing doctor was practically an entitlement of childhood. I don't remember anybody's getting upset about it. Adults seemed to think it was to be expected. Kids thought it was fascinating.

They still do. But pity the poor 5-year-old who drops his drawers on a playdate today. What we used to think of as harmless exploration now seems like nasty business. I know that awareness of child sex abuse has soared, and parents have been traumatized by revelations like the fact that a single Roman Catholic priest in Boston had abused 150 children. I understand the general anxiety about kids and sex; it creeps me out to think that my perfect, innocent 7-year-old daughter is actually a sexual being. I'm ambivalent about the idea that she's growing up, and I know she'll have to deal with boys all too soon. "We're much more likely to talk about our husbands' sexual inadequacies than our kids' sexual development," says one New York mom.

But several parents—especially parents of boys—have told me recently that they worry that healthy sexual development in their kids will be viewed by other parents as emotional problems or evidence of abuse at home. After her 5-year-old son told a playmate he would give her a lollipop if the little girl pulled down her pants, one mother from Illinois says she wasn't too concerned. The little girl's mother was, however. She said the boy's behavior "wasn't normal." When her son asked his younger sister if he could see her private parts, the mother took him to a therapist. The therapist told her the behavior was perfectly normal, and the boy soon stopped doing it. "But you have to be really careful," she says. "You don't want other parents freaking out."

It isn't just parents freaking out. After he smacked a female classmate on the bottom, a 6-year-old boy from northern Virginia was not only sent to the principal's office, but school officials called the police, according to a recent article in The Washington Post. The story noted that a few years earlier, a teacher's aide in Texas accused a 4-year-old of sexual harassment for pressing his face into her breasts when he hugged her. A similarly crazy example seems to pop up in the news every few months.

We need to relax a little. Children are little explorers; it's their job to figure out how the world works and how they're different from their siblings and friends. As most parents can attest, babies begin to touch themselves as soon as their diapers come off. Many toddlers are dedicated nudists. Overt sexual behavior like undressing in public or sneaking a peek at little Max's or little Hannah's private parts is also common for kids between the ages of 3 and 6. Kids who are aggressive and can't be easily redirected, or who act out mature sexual scenarios, may have deeper problems. But for most children, playing doctor is a stage of development, and they grow out of it by the time they get to elementary school.

Weather permitting, Corey Zenz, 4, loves to wriggle out of his little Cleveland Browns T shirt, shorts, socks and undies, and tear around outside naked. "It was kind of cute at age 3," says his mom, Lindsay, 29. "But if he does it this summer, it's not going to be that cute." She's concerned "people might think he's headed down the nasty path of being a flasher." Stopping him, however, isn't easy. "Boys Corey's age are slippery and amazingly fast," she says. "He's dressed, then he's not and I'm yelling, 'Corey, get over here and get your clothes on'." Oh, come on, it's still cute.