Help me with my son
September 1, 2005 9:11 AM   Subscribe

My eight year old son is behaving sexually at school and at camp. I feel that it's too early for the birds and bees talk. But he has been in trouble.

He has exposed himself, and has tried to engage in fondling kinds of things with other students. Is this normal? I'm sure that he has not been exposed to any adult activity or molestation of any kind. I am very distressed and this is completely out of my schema. If it helps, he is a virgo and very expressive. He is an awesome kid and I really want to keep him out of trouble.

What do I say and how do I discipline for this behavior?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think it's ever too early for a birds and bees talk. The taboo of the subject matter will drive him to explore even more.

I say be honest and start educating him.
posted by bigmusic at 9:28 AM on September 1, 2005

Discipline?, for being a child.
Teach him how to be a little gentleman around others with proper manners being learned. Seems it would solve all.
posted by thomcatspike at 9:32 AM on September 1, 2005

Same here. There's just ages at which kids start to experiment with that kind of stuff, the show-me-yours-and-I'll-show-you-mine kind of routine. Explain to him that other kids may not want to do that kind of thing yet, perhaps. I don't know, I don't even have kids. I just remember when I was 9 or 10 and there was no more exciting thing in the world than saying a "dirty word" or seeing genitals. And I grew up fiiiiine. Really. That restraining order is nothing to worry about.
posted by Skyanth at 9:34 AM on September 1, 2005

Uhmm, your kid needs help. A therapist asap. This is not normal behavior and and is a great big waving flag that something bad s going on in your son's life. Mild sexual play between children is normal, what you describe is not.

He is also not too old for an age appropriate 'birds & bees' talk. There should never be just *one* talk, it should progress over childhood. The therapist should be able to help you with this. At tbe very least he needs to learn to respect his own body and the body of others.

I cannot express enough how you need to focus on discovering and dealing with what is causing this behavior. Discipline can come after you have a better understanding.
posted by LadyBonita at 9:36 AM on September 1, 2005

Kids are naturally curious about their "private" parts. I think it's pretty common for kids to get together and show each other their privates, etc when they're really young. I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of other little kids and that sort of thing happened all the time (I only remember people showing each other their privates, boys and girls, no touching. And this was when I was kindergarten age).

I guess it all depends on how aggressive he is being. Is this 'mutual exploration' or is he just grabbing people? If it’s the latter, you need to try to explain to him that it's a very bad thing and he shouldn't do it. If this is just little kids getting together and 'playing doctor' then he'll probably just grow out of it.

If it helps, he is a virgo...

Uh, no that definitely does not help...
posted by delmoi at 9:45 AM on September 1, 2005

Uhmm, your kid needs help. A therapist asap. This is not normal behavior and and is a great big waving flag that something bad s going on in your son's life. Mild sexual play between children is normal, what you describe is not.

I'm not quite sure what she said that makes you think it's more then "mild sexual play". She said "has tried to engage in fondling kinds of things with other students", but she didn't say wether it was mutual or not. I'm assuming it is, because that would be the most common scenario, I think.

If he's forcing things on other people, then it is a big deal and she might want to see a psychologist.
posted by delmoi at 9:48 AM on September 1, 2005

Yes, him being a Virgo is definitely the problem. Have a Gemini next time.

Seriously though, I did this stuff with my friends when I was that age and I'm OK. As long as he isn't forcing himself on kids that don't want to be touched, I think it's pretty normal. I think sending him to therapy would freak him out more than you just explaining to him that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to touch people and letting him know what's acceptable and what's not.
posted by speranza at 9:51 AM on September 1, 2005

Disclaimer: I Am Not A Parent! Take what I say with a salt mine if you feel like it!

LadyBonita said:
Uhmm, your kid needs help. A therapist asap.

Well, what kid doesn't need help in today's world? But a therapist? ASAP, no less? I think that's going a bit overboard.

I'm gonna go with the groupthink on this one and say that it's normal... What we don't know is a) how long this has been going on, and b) what anon's parenting style is.

Yes, the child needs a talk. But moreover, this talk needs to be in-line with your family's established parenting norms. Due to his age, you will probably be able to give both short- and long-term consequences of his actions (time out at school, etc), the reasons that you (or the biggest role-model in his life) doesn't approve of that kind of behavior, as well as the concept of appropriate and inappropriate touching (assuming, of course, that he has an awareness of society and that there are different social norms for different places).

In my "Armchair Foster Parent" opinion, I would start a behavior chip box for the kid, emphasizing the reward he will get if he goes the whole day without acting out (plus two chips), and the penalties for bad behavior in this regard (minus five), as well as a chart for "cashing in." Also, don't make this about general behavior, just about this specific issue (i.e., no chips for cleaning up the room, and no negative chips for crossing the street unattended, etc). If you can do this until he outgrows this phaze, you may look at doing this for general parenting, although I wouldn't recommend it (the "behavior box" marginalizes altruistic -- good for its own sake -- behavior a bit too much for my taste).

Make a lot of small-chip items, and a few larger-chip items, to encourage "saving up" because the first instinct will be to just use the chips immediately for the lower-cost items (immediate gratification is a very basic behavior).
posted by chota at 10:11 AM on September 1, 2005

The time to deal with sex is when your kid either expresses or manifests an interest or awareness of it. At the latest. Seriously. This is too important to let slide because of... I don't know. Why do so many people put such a crucial piece of education off?

If it helps, he is a virgo...

I guess as this is AskMe I'll let that one pass. But please.
posted by Decani at 10:12 AM on September 1, 2005

If this is a sudden change in his behavior, then I would think that you need to get some help soon.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:16 AM on September 1, 2005

I feel that it's too early for the birds and bees talk.

I remember being mildly embarrassed and bored by the sex ed in 4th grade in NY public school because it was all so obvious and familiar, and how could they think we were dumb enough not to know, etc? But I met a woman from I think louisiana who lost her virginity at 13 by accident because she simply didn't understand that you could have sex without being completely naked.

Information is pretty much always a good thing. Give him context and boundaries for the curiosity he's feeling. If he has inappropriate impulses that he seems unable to control, you may have to get professionals involved, but I see no reason to jump to that conclusion.
posted by mdn at 10:18 AM on September 1, 2005

LadyBonita said:
Uhmm, your kid needs help. A therapist asap.

I strongly stand by my statement. Mostly because his mother seems so clueless and upset that she's posting here which to me indicates that his behavior is not on the normal scale - and also the statement that this has happened more than once despite what she or the shcool and camp have or have not done to address the issue. Therapy in this case is win/win: either she learns that her belief that he hasn't been molested is true and gets some guidance about having 'the talk' or it's discovered there is a more serious problem and it can be dealt with.

posted by LadyBonita at 10:32 AM on September 1, 2005

OK the point can be made without the caps Lady. My suggestion is give him the birds and bees talk but don't go overboard. Maybe set up an appointment with a child behavior speicalist and phycoligist.
posted by wheelieman at 10:38 AM on September 1, 2005

I'm lazy - *copied and pasted the caps*
posted by LadyBonita at 10:42 AM on September 1, 2005

Seconding Lady Bonita. Yes yes, I know everyone here engaged in innocent sexual behavior when they were kids. Thing is, my parents didn't post on-line with concerns about my behavior. Anon did. Hence, I'm erring on the side of caution.

First: exposing yourself when you're that age isn't unheard of. Fondling other children is a bit dicier. Repetitive behavior of this sort is very worrisome.

Second: this one's hard to say -- it's possible he was sexually abused. I'm not saying it's probable, I'm not saying it happened, I'm just saying that you need to accept that into your world view right now so if it does end up being the case, then you'll be prepared for it. No matter what we do, we can't guarantee our children's complete safety at all times.

Third: if you want to keep him out of trouble, then find a specialist and get him some therapy.
posted by incessant at 10:50 AM on September 1, 2005

I got the birds and the bees talk when I was three or four, the first time I asked "Where do babies come from?" and had gaps filled in as I asked questions while I grew up. It is never too early to have that conversation. Your kid is 8, so he's old enough to know whether or not his behavior is acceptable to those around him. If he doesn't know, explain why it isn't acceptable, and make sure he understands.

I wouldn't discipline him unless you're sure he knows the right from wrong in this situation and does the wrong anyway.
posted by sciurus at 10:53 AM on September 1, 2005

I have to agree with LadyBonita. In this day and age, her son is just a couple of years away from being arrested for this kind of thing. Crazy, but just a fact. Sexual "exploration" and sexual "assault" are hard to differentiate at a certain age and she needs to get help now.

posted by Independent Scholarship at 11:14 AM on September 1, 2005

IANAP, so you're welcome to disregard everything I say. I am also young, so more reason to ignore me. But, I hope you'll listen, as I am a student of human sexuality.

I did this sort of thing when I was young (6 or something, I think). While I'm definitely a weird sort of guy now, I function in society, have friends of all sorts, have never committed a crime worth worrying about, and have a healthy and pleasant sex life. In short, I'm "fine".*

This sort of behavior isn't uncommon. Of course, none of your friends are talking about, because most people are absolutely mortified by the fact that their children are doing this sort of thing. Hell, you posted as anonymous--presumably because you're embarassed by it.

I'll tell you what my parents did when they were called after I flashed a group of (similar-age-group) girls in kindergarten. You must understand that I come from a sex-positive family, where no taboo was placed on the issue whatsoever (not that we roam around naked together or anything, it's just that I was never made to feel bad for being sexual at whatever age it occured). My mother was a physician, so I understood the general ideas behind sexual reproduction fairly early, even if I had no idea how the mechanics of sex worked until I was 9 or 10.

Anyway, they fielded the phonecall from the principal, and picked me up from school. Then, they sat me down, and we had a talk. I was very young, so I can't precisely remember what was said, but it went something like the following:

"Aubrey, you're in trouble. You're not in trouble because you showed somebody your penis; you're in trouble because you did it in a way that people around you didn't like. Most people don't expect to see penises out in public, and so they don't like it. There are lots of situations where it's okay to show somebody your penis, but at school, or out in public, isn't one of them. Until you get older, and can figure out which situations are okay, you'll probably get in less trouble if you just keep your pants on. Now, let's talk about your punishment..."

I have no recollection of what the punishment was, but it was undoubtedly something of medium intensity and age-appropriate (no TV for a week or something, perhaps).

What I like about my parents' response is this: they didn't fuck up my sexuality. They didn't shame me, tell me I was doing bad things, or any of the other million mind-killing tactics that other parents might use.

First, the exposure. Basically, he is not harming anyone directly. His actions do not directly cause any psychological, neurological, or physical damage to his "victims". His crime is that he has violated a social convention, which admittedly causes all sorts of anxiety in some people, but is definitely not universally harmful (hell, there're lots of cultures where children run around nude until puberty). If you lay into him about how showing people your penis is wrong, you run the risk of imprinting that moral fact as a universal: Thou shall not show thy penis to people!

If you shame him enough that he stops, you may well turn him into one of those unfortunate people who cannot be comfortable nude even around his lovers later in life. Every time he's nude, he'll subconsciously remember your admonishments not to be nude around other people. I know people like this, I've slept with some of them, and they definitely enjoy sex less than I do.

Most kids don't do this sort of thing, not because they're "normal", but because they somehow picked up the naked-is-bad thing from their parents in some other way. For instance, perhaps they were yelled at when they stripped and sprinted through the house when they were four.

The idea here is that there are most definitely socially appropriate forms of nudity, and, without necessarily going into those things, you need to impress upon him that nudity isn't the problem, but rather the circumstances in which he chose to drop his drawers.

Another thing to think about is this: I remember that, for me, the biggest part of the fun of flashing people wasn't directly sexual. It was the fact that I could quite literally generate hysterics in dozens of people just by unzipping my fly a bit.

Second, the fondling. You need to figure out exactly what sort of fondling you're talking about. If he's literally holding people down and feeling them up, I probably would recommend that you take him to a good child psychologist. If he sexualizes that violence or control, then that's a problem. That needs to be nipped in the bud. Again, without shame, or you're condemming him to a life only a Jesuit could love.

If he's just playing grabass in the hallways or in the bathroom, I would go with something along the lines of the social conventions speech. Point out that he's invading somebody's personal space, and that most people are uncomfortable with that, but that touching genitals isn't inherently wrong.

If he's engaging in consensual show-and-tell with folks, then breathe a sigh of relief, and realize that this is pretty damn normal. Then you should explain the social convention. However, in this case, make it clear that the social convention is that adults, for whatever reason, don't like to think of their children doing this sort of thing. Even if the kids he's playing with don't mind, their parents probably do. Maybe you agree, maybe not, either way make it clear to your kid that he is expected to play by those conventions regardless, since it all results in trouble.

But first and foremost, you need to talk to your son, and you need to listen to your son. Figure out what's going on with him, open a dialogue, and talk to him about this stuff. Sitting down and lecturing him isn't the answer... let him ask questions, discuss what's going on, but make clear that we've built up a huge group of games and rules around sex.

And, you need to remember yourself that there's absolutely nothing "natural" about the way we handle sex in the West today. Our rules and conventions are a thousand times more baroque, convoluted, and full of exceptions than corporate tax codes. Move a few hundred miles away, and there's a completely new set of codes. Seriously, humans bring "sexual harassment" lawsuits for actions to which, were they gorillas or chimps, they'd respond positively.

If you can really talk to him, there may be no need for "discipline" to halt his actions.

* For the record, I still like being naked in front of people. I love it, in fact, and seek out every opportunity to do it. However, I do it in situations and circumstances where that sort of behavior is decidedly okay. I don't expose myself in public, not because I think that there's something inherently wrong with it, but because I know that it causes distress in the folks on the street.
posted by Netzapper at 11:36 AM on September 1, 2005 [6 favorites]

Your child is eight and doesn't know the basics?

Sit him down tonight and have a talk. A frank, open, honest talk. That will then lead nicely into what is and is not appropriate public behaviour.

posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:42 AM on September 1, 2005

If you do decide to send your kid to a therapist, try to avoid making him feel like a freak.

The response of "Wow, this kid has issues- what a fuckup! Get him to a shrink as soon as possible!", while surely good-intentioned, rubs me the wrong way because of its tone.
posted by elisabeth r at 12:00 PM on September 1, 2005

At 8, all the kids in my class knew half of the sex talk. Knowing half was probably worse than knowing the whole, and led to a lot of embarrassment and fear and name calling etc. I think we all would've been better off getting the sex talk clearly and completely then, or earlier.

/two cents.
posted by stray at 12:12 PM on September 1, 2005

Nobody said the kids a fuckup, and he's not. Nor is he a freak and I don't think the mom would make him feel like one - all she has to do is admit that she doesn't know how to handle this and they're going to see someone who does.

The asap is because *if* there is molestation happening there's urgency.
posted by LadyBonita at 12:13 PM on September 1, 2005

My friends have a 2 year old who is naturally intersted in his penis. They explain to him that this is totally fine, but that this exploration is something private, just for him. Not wrong, just private. Your kid is definitely not too young for that kind of conversation. It doesn't have to be a conversation about the birds and the bees, just about appropriate public/private boundaries.
posted by judith at 12:14 PM on September 1, 2005

How do we know it's the kid's mother posting here? It's not just women that are into hippy-dippy astrology crap, you know. Just sayin'.
posted by speranza at 12:23 PM on September 1, 2005

Mostly because his mother seems so clueless and upset...
posted by LadyBonita
Nothing in the original post points to the gender of the poster, or am I missing something? And the posting seems pretty level-headed and inquisitive, from here, anyway.

As someone who grew up with both therapy (not for sexual issues) and talks from respected adults at an early age, I highly reccomend the talk and discourage therapy.

I remember my thinking process quite clearly as an eight-year-old. When I was eight, I asked a six-year-old girl (I am male) if she would let me put my penis in her vagina. This was in the presence of her seven-year-old brother and four-year-old sister. You see, at that time, I assumed that if you had a sibling of the opposite sex, that's just what you did, and I thought I would be doing something that had already taken place between the siblings. Incorrect, but innocent. We weren't observed by adults, but were playing alone. She refused, I wasn't pushy, and I thought nothing more about it, until...

...a couple of weeks later, my friends' father (our families were close) took me out for lunch. He informed me that the four-year-old had brought up the incident at dinner one evening. He didn't shame me, but told me at great length about the implications of my actions. He treated me with dignity, respect and understanding, and helped fill in many of the gaps in my pre-adolescent, playground understanding of sexual behavior. He said that he wouldn't tell my parents, that he trusted me to just be going through a natural experimental process, and encouraged me to ask my parents or him if I ever had questions in the future.

As an adult, I remember that talk as one of the formative, and most positive, experiences of my life. As someone who works with children and families now, I realize that there are so many other ways that that situation could have been handled, and I am so thankful that it happened the way it did. I have a positive role-model, not a 'therapy' experience. Endless gratitude!

Any time I went to a therapist (before and after [but not related to] that incident–really just a way for my folks to avoid their own issues, by treating me) I felt singled-out, confused as to why I was there, and unsure of the point.

I hope this is helpful. It's not my intention to project my own experience onto your situation. I'm thinking that relating to the eight-year-old mind on its own terms is really the key. If a child is experimenting, they are trying to learn. Children naturally learn through play. Adults can help the process by showing them the boundaries while not discouraging the learning process.

Also, have you ever read the issues of Savage Love where people retell the misconceptions they had about sex behavior as kids (and often into adulthood)? Your child can only benefit from the opportunity to develop his mind based on accurate information, about physiology, interpersonal relations and the moral implications of his actions.
posted by al_fresco at 1:17 PM on September 1, 2005 [2 favorites]

The concern here is that he has been in trouble, yes? I presume someone at school or another parent has complained?

I side with the "this is normal" people. I also agree that it is past time for a talk about sex. But, there needs to be another talk, about decorous behaviour; what we do and don't do. An eight year old doesn't need a detailed account of human reproduction but he does need some guidance about appropriate behaviour. I had to explain to my three year old why masturbating is not something we do in the living room. This kind of talk is just part of our work as parents.

Birds and bees talk won't prevent being in trouble, but an etiquette talk will.

It's definitely worth you seeking advice from a child psychologist if you want reassurance though.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:20 PM on September 1, 2005

PS: Lady Bonita's link seems pretty uptight to me, and very broad-brush. How much is excessive? What about going through phases? In particular, many of the so-called signs of sexual disturbance are actually about other people's reactions and may have nothing to do with the child. I find this fear-mongering.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:23 PM on September 1, 2005

I say go to a therapist for one reason: you're looking for advice, and what you get from a therapist will almost certainly be better than what these people have to offer. Sheesh.

Therapists are nothing to freak out over. People are willing to get tips on their swing from the golf pro at a club; talking to a therapist shouldn't be any different.
posted by Eamon at 1:29 PM on September 1, 2005

People are willing to get tips on their swing from the golf pro at a club; talking to a therapist shouldn't be any different.
The difference is, with a golf pro, you can look at their stats and see if their advice is worthy of your respect. You can actually watch them play, in real time. Most therapists are not going to give you the experience of seeing how they interact with their families. They talk 'about' experience, but you don't get the important role-modeling aspect that you can from a golf pro.

I hope the poster has access to other parents that he/she knows, respects and trusts. Irreplaceable.
posted by al_fresco at 1:40 PM on September 1, 2005

That's true, al_fresco, but there's nothing stopping anon from going to a couple 'interview' sessions with a therapist alone, and then bringing the kiddo in when he or she is sure it's a winner.

You're right about talking with other parents. If the poster can also find a therapist he/she respects and trusts, there will be the extra benefit of getting advice tempered with experience.
posted by Eamon at 1:47 PM on September 1, 2005

I think it's never, ever too early for that talk. I think it's bad for a child to learn all about everything in one big embarrassing session (by which time they probably heard it from another kid anyway). I think that talk starts with age appropriate responses to the first question they ever ask - 'where do babies come from' and progresses as they grow up and start finding SM porn on the internet (joke (kind-of)).

My mother is a kindergarten teacher in the UK where law-suits aren't so likely to follow from things like this, and she has always said that most of her kids behave sexually sometimes, but that every few years she encounters one whose behavior is definitely not age appropriate. It can be hard to pin down how or why, but they tend to be copying adult behaviors rather than just experimenting, they might be talking about 'hard cocks and pussies' or they might be obsessively focused on sex, especially on doing one particular act. Most kids get bored of it after a while, but these kids don't. That stuff is a huge red flag for abuse. I think the problem is finding out where on this scale your son's behavior is.

Apart from that, I thought what Netzapper said was great.
posted by crabintheocean at 1:53 PM on September 1, 2005

NetZapper hit the nail on the head. Instead of a therapist you might consider something like this.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 4:37 PM on September 1, 2005

wait, sorry about that link. this should work.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 4:40 PM on September 1, 2005

Your child "has been in trouble" for sexual behavior. I think a therapist is a good idea. It's not easy to find a good therapist for a child, so get lots of recommendations.

It's definitely time to talk to your child about sex. And not just once, but keep bringing up the subject to give him the chance to ask questions. It's also an opportunity to talk to him about your values about sex.
posted by theora55 at 8:18 PM on September 1, 2005

I think you should listen to Netzapper. His answer addresses all the possible scenarios, and they're essentially what you'll find in any psychology textbook.

Emphasize that it's not shameful, but it's meant to be private and with someone you love who wants to do it. The worst possible thing you could do is take a kid to a shrink for engaging in normal (if inappropriate) exploration of his own and other's bodies--you'd be teaching him those kinds of feelings are bad-bad-bad, and only sick boys do it.
posted by schroedinger at 9:09 PM on September 1, 2005

As someone who was in therapy constantly as a kid : therapy fucked me up more than my parents ever did. Man, therapy was where I was told that it really was all my fault. I had some pretty bad therapists, but still...

I'm now 24 and can't see therapists for actual pyschological problems that I have thanks to my childhood experiences which have left me completely unable to open up and instead just repeat what it is I think the therapist wants to hear. Thank God for medication.

This "therapy will solve everything" mantra that's getting passed around with parents these days is crap. Therapy can often times fuck a kid up, make him feel like a huge freak when he realizes that none of the other kids are going to talk to a strange man every Tuesday afternoon who is constantly asking them questions about doll parts.

Therapy has its time and place, and if there IS abuse going on, by all means RUN to the best therapist in your area. But you should talk to your son first to be sure there IS abuse rather than just deciding that you can't cope and therapy is the answer. If this is just normal kid behavior, a therapist might make your kid feel a hundred times worse.

I definitely agree that a talk about boundaries and acceptable behavior is in order in addition to one in an ongoing series of talks about sexuality.

From my own experience, my parents were very open with the subject of sex. I was never taught that it was wrong, and I was a very sexually expressive kid. On the occasions that I got in trouble for "acting out" in a sexual manner (such as at age 6 when I humped this kid who was just trying to get to the bathroom), I was told that it was the behavior that was the problem and not that I had sexual feelings or wanted to explore them. Being curious about sex was fine. Humping innocent bystanders was not.

In the end, while I ended up kinda weird in a lot of other ways, I'm absolutely 100% fine sexually. No hang ups to speak of. I was very sexually precocious - coming out as queer at fourteen and becoming sexually active soon thereafter. I'm sure my parents would have wanted me to wait longer, but they've also breathed many a sigh of relief that I never did the "sexual experimentation means I'm going to sleep with everyone" thing that was oh so popular in my high school. Or the "sexual experimentation means I'm going to sleep with everyone WHILE ON DRUGS" thing in college. Not that there's anything wrong with that... I'm just sayin', my parents sleep pretty well at night.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:47 PM on September 1, 2005

I agree with grapefruitmoon - sending a child to see a therapist can unfortunately convey the message that there is something quite wrong with them. I'd consider it carefully before you go that route.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:03 AM on August 11, 2006

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