My son was 3 and bath time meant time with 40 floating toys, lots of bubbles and his snorkeling mask. It also meant I could make dinner 15 feet away in relative peace. It was an evening ritual that worked for both of us. One night he yelled from the tub, “Mommy! Mommy! Come quick, I need to show you something!” As I ran tub-side, he sat up and with eyes bright behind his orange diving mask, he pointed down at his penis. “Look how big my penis got when I was diving with my toys! It’s huge! Is it going to always be this big?!” I loved his enthusiasm for life and once again I wished I could capture that sense of discovery and adventure in each small moment. “No, sweetie. Sometimes when your penis gets rubbed it gets larger. Pretty soon it will go back to how it usually is.” Wanting him to someday be able to appreciate the miracle of his body I added, “Isn’t it wonderful that God gave you a penis that can change size sometimes?”
I often have the pleasure of training parents and youth pastors about the sexual development of children and how to raise sexually, spiritually and relationally healthy kids. This is something all parents want … however most didn’t experience a good example of this growing up and now as parents or youth workers feel completely lost in knowing how to coach and love a child through their sexual development.
Recently I had the opportunity to listen to a fishbowl conversation of 6 adolescents discussing what they most wanted the adults in their life to understand about growing up in today’s world. Over and over they said, “Please just talk to us. Listen to us. Tell us about your life – how you learned and struggled through growing up – how you learned from your mistakes. Tell us your stories. Help us know we are not alone and that you understand how hard this must be for us.”
Subsequent to this fish bowl discussion was one with a group of 6 youth workers and parents of teens. Together they had a conversation about what it is like attempting to guide and parent adolescents. Their resounding message was, “It is terrifying, frightening, overwhelming. We don’t know what to say, we don’t have the answers and we feel totally lost.”
The beautiful thing the adults could hear from the wisdom of the youth was they didn’t have to have the answers … they just needed to listen with compassion and offer the youth their own stories of growing up. They just wanted the adults to open up the conversation and be there with an open and loving heart. No answers needed … just honesty, transparency and love.
So it is in this spirit of loving and guiding kids as they grow – that I offer this guideline of normative childhood sexual development based on research and observational data.
In utero and at birth
- Prior to birth males can have erections
- The capacity for sexual response is present at birth for both genders
- At birth girl’s vaginas are capable of lubrication
- Rhythmic manipulation associated with masturbation begins at age 2 1/2 to 3 years and is considered natural sexual expression – bring comfort and calm
- Gender identity (maleness, femaleness) is typically formed by age 2
- Little boys and girls can experience orgasm from masturbation although boys will not ejaculate until puberty
- They want to learn the names of all body parts
- There is increased curiosity of adult gendered social behaviors
Three to Seven
- Preschool kids are interested in everything – including sexuality
- The like to urinate in all kinds of positions and places
- They are often very affectionate – love hugging
- Lots of curiosity and kissing other adults and children
- May imitate adult social sexual behavior
- Very common to play ‘doctor’ and ‘look see’
- They understand ‘living together’ as family and may talk about ‘getting married’ when they are older
- Normal sexual experimentation is spontaneous, silly, and light-hearted, and although may be embarrassing, it is uncommon to involve anger, shame, fear, or anxiety.
Eight to Twelve
- Puberty !!!
- Girls: breast buds and pubic hair (>10); periods 10 – 13
- Boys: further development of penis and testicles(>11); voice changes; pubic hair
- May become more modest even with same sex parent
- Masturbation increases and interest in internet pornography often begins.
- Lots of questions about intercourse, petting, oral sex, and anal sex, homosexuality, rape and incest – but may be more shy to ask. Requires more casual and stealth approaches. This is a key time to discuss sexuality and reproduction in more detail.
- Same gender play and exploration common
- In the company of same sex friends, masturbating together or looking at or caressing each other’s genitals is common among pre-adolescent boys and girls.
- Some group ‘dating’. Interest in social media increases as can secrecy. Be aware and open. Be willing to set boundaries for their protection and to teach them how to manage social media and the increasing complexity in relationships at school.
- Increased desire to attend events, parties and may develop public ‘crushes’ or ‘go out’, but this is mostly a social occurrence
- Between 5% to 10% of adolescent males and 6% of females report sexual experiences with someone of the same gender, usually another adolescent.
- Developmental tasks include:
- Resolving conflict of identity and role confusion.
- Establishing gender identity of manhood or womanhood, or conflict about gender roles.
- Developing a sense of stable self.
- Managing physical and emotional intimacy in relationships
- Girls need additional guidance on the development of purpose/power/voice
- Boys need additional guidance on the development of their emotional intelligence and relational skills
- More physiological changes – growth in genitals and breasts, facial and pubic hair.
- Increased desire to relate to romantic partner sexually.
- Research on the hook-up culture suggests it can lead to disillusionment in romantic partnership and lasting love
America, Religion & Sex – average age of initial intercourse based on religious affiliation:
- No religion=16.4
- Fundamentalist protestant=16.9
- Other protestant=16.9
- Other religion=18.8
- There is no way to predict how a particular teenager will act sexually. Most adolescents explore relationships with one another, fall in and out of love, and participate in sexual intercourse before the age of 20.
- Adolescents report less sexual communication growing up than parents thought they did.
- Adolescents who have parents that are open to talk and listen about sexual issues describe being closer to their parents overall.
- Young adults typically experience the greatest number of different partners in their 20s.
- During this period the risk for contracting STDs is highest, and the need to practice safe sex paramount.
- There is increased desire for intimacy however the current cultural pace of life leaves limited time for relationship complexity.
- Young adults are tending to marry later in urban areas – 28 males; 26 females.