What do young children know about sex?

Children see and hear things that can confuse them, but parents can clarify without telling all

Children see and hear things that can confuse them, but parents can clarify without telling all

January 19, 2007|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

Who can say why it might have happened - when a kindergarten student at a public school in Washington County was accused of sexual harassment? The 5-year-old student allegedly pinched the buttocks of a female classmate in a hallway at Lincolnshire Elementary School on Dec. 8.

The incident, however, raises a broader question: What do children at that young of an age really know about sex?

They might know more than you think, researchers say.

Sexual development begins well before children reach their teenage years, experts say. Kids draw on influences from every direction - from family, media and their peers, and personal experience as they get older.

But problems, researchers say, arise when children are unable to get reliable information about sex from their parents and begin to adopt images they see and hear on television and other forms of media.

"If most information comes from media, that's probably going to lead to problematic outcomes," says Steven Martino, behavioral scientist with the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank that publishes research and analysis related to public health, among other topics.


Martino led a study published in August 2006 in the American Academy of Pediatrics' journal, Pediatrics, that found that teens who listened to music containing sexually degrading lyrics progressed more quickly in their sexual behavior than teens who listened to that kind of music less frequently.

Martino says children's early experiences with sex - things they learn, see and hear - can affect their behavior as teens.

Parents play a key role in the development of their child's future sexual health, he says.

"We think that it's very important that kids are taught to be critical thinkers," says Martino. "The more input they have on sexual behavior, the better off they're going to be."

What kids really know

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children develop an awareness of their own bodies sometime between the ages of 18 months and 3 years old.

It is not until they are 4 or 5 years old that they begin to show an interest in basic sexuality. This is when parents ought to anticipate the inevitable question, "Where do babies come from?"

By the time children are 5 to 7 years old, according to the academy, children are trying to understand the connection between sexuality and reproduction.

By the time they are 8 or 9, the academy says children generally know what sex is and should have some understanding about puberty and how the body will change.

But what happens when a child says or does something unexpected? How should the parent respond?

"Don't freak out," says Dr. Carol Ellison, a clinical psychologist, author and professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

Ellison says parents mistakenly sexualize what children might consider normal play. A lot of that, Ellison says, plays itself out in role-playing games, such as playing "doctor" or "house."

"It's normal for all of us to want to solve the mysteries of sex, even in childhood," Ellison says. "Kids rehearse courtship behaviors at an early age."

If a child does behave inappropriately, parents shouldn't make the child feel ashamed, experts say. Instead, it's time to have an honest but gentle talk with the child.

"It's most likely innocent and is most likely a reaction to what the kid saw, but it should also tip off parents that this is on the child's mind," Martino says.

Outside influences

But parents aren't the only source of information when it comes to sex.

A Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study released in 2005 surveyed 2,032 youths in third grade through 12th grade between October 2003 and March 2004 on their media-use habits.

The results of that study found that those youths had been exposed daily to an average of nearly 8 1/2 hours of some form of media content - TV, videos, music video games, computers, movies and print material.

That's almost the equivalent to a typical work day.

Of the youths surveyed, 53 percent said their parents had not outlined any rules for watching TV.

Another foundation study released that same year found that the amount of sexual content on television has sharply increased over the years.

The study found that 70 percent of all TV shows in a typical week had some form of sexual content, with 3,780 sexual scenes.

According to the study, there was an average of five sexual scenes an hour. The results were almost double that of 1998, when 1,930 scenes were reported.

Researchers reviewed more than 1,000 hours of programing across the four major networks, public television, cable television channels and HBO between 2004 and 2005.


According to behavioral scientists and child experts, the increased prevalence of sex in society and the absence of adequate sexual education should be cause for concern.

Two other Rand Corp. studies in 2003 and 2004 each concluded that teens who watched a lot of television with sexual content were more likely to initiate intercourse in the following year.

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