Q&A: Oh, body parts…

Lauren writes:

"My son has just discovered his penis, and loves playing with it all the
time (not at school, thank goodness). We tell him it's okay to
touch/play with his penis in his room, but when he does it in other
areas of the house, we tell him it's private and he should go in his
room if he wants to play with it. Nonetheless, he still likes to pull it
out when he's sitting around the house, watching tv, etc. Any
suggestions for his new found penis obsession? We want to be accepting
and not shaming, but also have him gain a sense of personal boundaries
(I know with two boys you've probably dealt with this before). By the
way, he's three and a half."

This question is just always going to make me laugh. The good news is that he's getting the social convention, as he doesn't play with his penis at school. So he's definitely got the idea that it's something you do in private vs. public.

There are two explanations for why he's doing it at home: 1) He just isn't getting that there are different levels of privacy in your house. So it feels ok to him to whip it out in the living room. 2) He's 3.5 so he's testing boundaries, in that "I'm going to whistle innocently while I pull the dog's tail and hope you don't notice that I did it" way.

My money's on #2, but only because I think age 3.5 is the nadir of human existence. So I'd keep reinforcing the boundary, but stay unattached to his ability to comply, not making a big deal out of it, and in a few months when he swings back into equilibrium I bet he'll "remember" to keep it in his pants except when he's in his room.

Does anyone have any stories of kids not keeping it in their pants that they'd like to entertain us with?

42 thoughts on “Q&A: Oh, body parts…”

  1. Our son just turned three and is obsessed with his penis.He doesn’t understand the concept of private/alone time or places yet.
    So, at the advice of daycare workers, we found some onesies in his size (thankfully he is small for his age) and he wears them under his close. They’re like a toddler chastity belt.
    And they work.
    We’ll keep working on private/alone time for when he does want to explore that area. Until then it’s onesies to the rescue.

  2. My son turned 4 in the beginning of October, and he can’t keep his hands off his junk! He doesn’t pull it out, though. It’s always through his clothes, but still. In the interest of full disclosure, he didn’t potty train until about two weeks after his birthday, so he has more access to it now than ever before. (He has never been a fan of being naked, so this is really a new experience for him.)So, we tell him all the regular things — it is your body and it’s okay to touch, but you need to do that in private, like when you’re in the bathroom/bathtub or if you go to the bedroom or play room first. I try to say it without much investment or frustration in my voice. Just a “hey, gentle reminder here!” like when I tell him to take his finger out of his nose. So far, I feel like we are having zero success, and I think my husband is getting annoyed and frustrated.
    I guess I have no advice, just sympathy/empathy.

  3. “3.5 is the nadir of human existence” OMG that made me laugh out loud at my desk. I’m SO suffering from that right now, complete with my own weepy moments after dealing w/Little Guy who is either a complete pain in the ass or the most snuggly boy ever.

  4. Both kids (3 yo boy and 6 yo girl) do that in our house. They both still LOVE to be naked. I have instituted a YOU MUST WEAR UNDERPANTS rule, but they both do everything they can to get around it. When the 6 yo was younger I had a lot more patience, and I mostly do with the 3 year old, but there are a few rare occasions when I exclaim “STOP DOING THAT!!” then I shamefully try to follow up with a kinder, gentler, “it’s your body and you can touch it if you want to, but please do it in your room.” it feels like a never ending battle.

  5. I have a 3 1/2 year old and he isn’t OBSESSED with his penis but he knows where it is and likes to, I don’t know, check to be sure it’s there periodically. So we calmly, gently ask if he needs to use the potty, then remind him that touching his penis is for when he’s in the bathroom or alone in his room.We are pretty cool with nudity in our house for the most part, but recently we acquired a house-mate, so we’ve instituted a lot of new-to-us pants rules and close-the-bathroom/bedroom-door-rules. Everything was going pretty well until one day new housemate and two other friends and I were sitting in the living room socializing when kiddo came to join us after his nap… totally pantsless. Just chillin’, no pants. Hey duds, sup, I’m awake now, and sans-pants. That cool with you? Oh yeah, that’s cool with me. Mind if I sit here? Just, y’know, scoot on over… TOTALLY APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR.

  6. It happens to girls too! Table legs, corners of the coffee table. Just make sure it’s not self soothing for anxiety he’s feeling around another issue. If it is, you might be able to provide another “soother” like chew beads.

  7. Kid in my son’s kindergarten class pulled his out last year for everyone to see. That was a lesson in and of itself. We go with “private” vs “public” and explain that’s why his penis is a “private part.” And also that the only person ever allowed to touch it is himself and mom/dad if we’re giving him a bath. And the doc if we’re in the room. Never to early to double up on a lesson!

  8. Younger was totally the girl version at that age. We just always reminded her it was something private. She figured it out. We’d tell her and she’s say, “Okay!” and jump up and go into her room which always made us snort with laughter.On a related note, I was just reading something (dang, an article? Something in a book?) and the author briefly mentioned the shaming of being told “that’s private”. It made me mad! It made me mad because a.) that’s what we taught our girls, and on the spectrum of shame, I don’t think that even registers, and b.) what’s the alternative? I mean, what are you supposed to say? Also, like rebecca notes, we would often roll it into the idea of your body being a private space in terms of personal safety.
    It was something I came across in passing, but it jumped out at me. My parents were great and all, but when it came to sexuality we never had conversations. One of my great joys as a Mom is that I now have an opportunity to say to my girls what I wish I had heard. I don’t think telling them “That’s private” is some sort of repression. I think it’s healthy.

  9. Well my son’ll be 8 in January and he still won’t leave it alone. He’s always holding on to it as if he’s afraid it will walk off, and not only when he’s at home either. I’ve been putting it down to his being Italian. Seriously, we don’t make an issue about it because basically the rest of us have been guilty of it to some extent :).Culturally it’s no big deal, but I do let him know it isn’t appropriate outside the house( or at least where others can see what is happening).

  10. I understand the desire not to turn it into a shameful thing. I end up letting him do it just about whenever he wants at home, but if we’re in a store, I ask him if he has to go potty. The answer is always no, so I whisper to him that he should wait to squeeze it until we’re home because it’s not something we do in a store. But if he decides he has to pee, he should let me know and I’ll help him.Seeing the boy with his hand on his stuff all the time drives my husband nuts, but I think he’s just jealous that he doesn’t get to play with his all day. I have also written it off (in part) to my son being intact. He’s now able to retract fully and apparently comfortably. I’ve heard some boys get uncomfortable during the process of the foreskin detaching, so I expect that could have had my son wanting to fidget with it. Who knows. I do wish he’d quit, though.

  11. Hey Rudyinparis! When I told my little girl that the reason we don’t show our vulva or our breasts (for grown up ladies) to people outside our family is because they’re private, her first question was “Why?”So maybe the author of whatever you read was cutting to the chase, assuming at some point, the child you’re dealing with will inevitably ask *why* it’s private — a question that is tough to answer without some sort of arbitrary, inherently shameful reasoning.
    Although I did come up with an easy answer: those parts are private because they’re *special*! 🙂 We don’t let just anybody see such special parts, only people we really love and trust, like family. And then, likewise, when we want to touch those parts a lot, that’s for special alone time.

  12. I read somewhere that a tendency to masturbate is strong around age 4 but eases off for a while after that. I think it helps to know that he’s probably not going to be this obsessed for the rest of his childhood.

  13. Oh yes, my 10 yo girl has a favorite blanket that we sometimes calls her boyfriend. It only took several times of saying “that’s a little rude to do in public because it can make others uncomfortable. Just do that in your room” and that’s it!

  14. I have zero experience of raising a boy but in my daughter’s pre-school class there was one 3.5 year old boy who did drop his trousers and wave it around. More I think for the reaction of shock and awe.My daughter is not easily shocked and had a good close look and then loudly announced to the class that x had a sausage. and then ” But it is SO SMALL! “.
    Who knew the male ego is so fragile so early on?
    He never did it again, in school. The teacher and teaching assistant cracked up and told the whole school. Yes. It was funnier than the time that she told teacher X that she had very big nipples.
    She did as it happens. Very well endowed, very low cut top, no bra. Daughter said what everyone else was thinking.
    This is no help to mothers of sons. Sorry.
    3.5 is also the age where there’s no inhibition in talking. At nearly five she’s much more discreet now. Sort of.

  15. We also have the rule that you can touch yourself when alone, and in the privacy of your own room. When elder son was almost four he had his hands down his pants almost constantly. I told him that I would help him remember to keep his hands off his penis with the friendly reminder of “Hands off!” So one afternoon, we were hanging out in his room and I had to tell him “Hands off!” He replied “Mom, I thought you said I could touch my penis when I’m in my room!” I said that yes, the rule was that he needed to be in his room AND alone. And he replied with all the sass of a 14-year-old “Well then, could you please leave!”

  16. I don’t think we’re doing our boys any favors if we let them handle it and play with it publicly. It’s not shaming, it’s just … I don’t know, call it etiquette. I don’t let my kids pick their noses, either, even though there’s really nothing inherently wrong with that other than social taboo. But honestly, how annoying is it when you see grown men constantly adjusting themselves? Ugh.Both my big kids (6 yo boy, 8 yo girl) are guilty of this and we have a “take it to your room or the bathroom” rule as well. If I have to give more than one reminder, then a trip to the bathroom is no longer optional. Which pisses them off because they don’t like me making that decision for them, but too bad. Next time keep your private scratching/touching/adjusting to yourself.

  17. My boy (3.5) has only played with himself a very little bit when on the potty and he didn’t want to/have to go pee. The only thing I told him is he has to wash his hands afterwards.Is it just me that thinks they should wash their hands afterwards? To go with @Jan’s analogy, if they put their fingers in their nose, I tell them to wash their hands because they could spread germs. There is bateria around penises and vulvas, right? Does anyone else make them wash their hands?
    @Mom in France – Ditto everything you said!

  18. @caramama, my daughter is only two, but she’s very interested in touching herself down there, and right now, I discourage it mainly because of the handwashing issue. She’s not potty trained and I don’t know how sanitary that area is even after using about 6 wipes on her bum after a poop. So we go with, “it’s not a good time to touch your bottom right now.” The only exception is when she’s on the potty, since we make her was her hands after trying anyhow. Once she has the ability to understand “only in your room or the bathroom” a little better, I will definitely remind her to wash her hands after as well.

  19. I suspect that privates that have been inside undies and pants all day are rather cleaner than hands that have been out in the world. People should probably wash their hands *before*, LOL. Especially if you are a kid and don’t have the, ah, adult odor profile? that comes with arousal. Still and all, I think there’s an important cultural separation between public and private and if you’ve been doing something private with your private parts, washing your hands is a good separator before joining the public world again. But the 60s and 70s feminists taught us over and over again that while bums may be dirty, vaginas are not. My own inclination is to keep the message on the private vs. social level rather than talk about bacteria.(One of the funniest things Mouse ever asked me, when she was maybe 4, was “mommy, is it ok if I like to wiggle my fingers on the bumpy part of my bottom?” – yep, all good sweetie, just private.)

  20. We also have a little nudist boy, who loves to take his pants off at home, or put his hands down his pants. Child is still not potty trained 🙁 So right now we are OK with having the bottom half naked.For the most part, he does not touch himself outside the house. we do have a must wear pants outside the house rule, which he finally understands. And he generally does not touch himself in public, probably because there are so many other interesting things for him to do. (Read, other ways to get in trouble!)

  21. Story time before bed around that age was a particularly grim affair. He’d be all, “But I’m IN my ROOM!” and I’d be all, “Look, do you want the story or not?” Lines were drawn.

  22. Regular commenter but anonymous here, recognizing the permanence of the internet and the weirdness of some parts of our culture(s). Now in kindergarten, my son is definitely still doing this. Actually the most frequent cause of a real inability to keep hands off is his needing to poop … I think he doesn’t recognize where the discomfort/pressure is coming from and just starts wiggling everything down there around, and of course, one part is more grabbable than the rest. But yes, we’ve started to mention the “hands off (except in private)” rule though I have to say I didn’t worry about it until kindergarten. My son is also intact and his foreskin doesn’t yet retract, so that may be a contributor also.Much of my family of origin is from and/or still lives in Europe (though I am in the US), and my general experience growing up and with them even today is that no one thinks it’s the least bit weird for kids up to about 8 to run around starkers in pretty much any context, so we’re pretty blase about nudity in our household (my US raised husband less so than me), though not of course out and about.

  23. Ah. My Bug (3.6666 yrs) mostly grabs his bits a) in the tub, fine, whatever, or b) because he needs to pee. At which point I tell him, if he keeps grabbing his bits, he has to go pee.Just remember, because it’s normal doesn’t mean it can’t be annoying too!

  24. Amen @Rudyinparis – “I don’t think telling them “That’s private” is some sort of repression. I think it’s healthy.” Yes, it’s called having healthy boundaries – amen.Amen @Jan – “I don’t know, call it etiquette. I don’t let my kids pick their noses, either, even though there’s really nothing inherently wrong with that other than social taboo. But honestly, how annoying is it when you see grown men constantly adjusting themselves? Ugh.” Thank you so much for that. 😉

  25. My take is that it’s a continuum. It don’t think permitting a 2 or 3 y.o. to play with himself is going to result in a man who constantly adjusts himself in public or masturbates in public. I think my sons are exploring their bodies, and for my eldest, it’s a tensional outlet. I also don’t make a big deal of it when he has his fingers up his nose, though I might gently disengage his hands and hand him a tissue. He already knows that you can’t show anyone your penis at school, and we don’t encourage flashing. We don’t say “that’s private” because I’m hesitant to start attaching special power to certain parts of the body, because he’s still in his beautifully unself-conscious phase. I might say gently, “You need to keep your penis inside your underpants when we are outside the house,: which conveys the same information without using the word “private”. Mostly, I think they get super excited about their penises once they are potty trained and have unfettered access, and if they had tensional outlet kinds of kids they might play with themselves a lot. My guess is that it will pass, or they will imbibe the social norm with time. They are also naked boys and I don’t mind if they run around the house naked, or even outside for that matter, though now I guess the 4 y.o. is getting too old for that (not to me, just to the U.S. at large). My son doesn’t play with himself nearly as much as he used to, and I’m guessing it will fade in the next year or two. We’re also working on getting him other tensional outlets, like those chewy stixx they make for kids with SPD or autism.

  26. My son mostly played with his in the bath, where he would get an erection and then had to show me, LOL. Now at almost 7, he’s become quite private of his own accord, and I don’t have to remind him of things like that anymore.My daughter, interestingly, has never been as interested in her private parts as my son has. I guess they’re less obvious? Any touching she has done has happened in the bath, too.
    I think *most* children naturally develop a sense of modesty and privacy as they get older. We have no problem with nudity or bodies, yet our kids have already absorbed what’s appropriate and are reflecting it back.
    I’m curious when the hilarity surrounding the word “penis” ends, though. My son and his friends could spend hours laughing over that word…

  27. It’s not just boys! My almost-five-year-old daughter continually has her hand down her pants lately and then complains, “My vagina is sore!” I’ve gently suggested that she not touch herself so much, and she says she just can’t remember to stop. The thing is, she can, as she doesn’t do this in public. I think it’s just a matter of being relaxed at home and letting everything hang out, so to speak.

  28. Thanks, Moxie. I think you jinxed me. I read this yesterday and today I receive an email from my son’s kindergarten teacher that he dropped trou at the lunch table.He’s never done anything like this before and we have talked about how that part of his body is private, etc. The teacher wants us to continue the conversation at home but I’m at a loss as to what to say next.

  29. @Julie, I’d start with asking him why. Knowing my kid, there’d be some reason I hadn’t considered. Not a good reason, but still….My kid, like pretty much all kids, has done this — once, as a one- or two-year-old, at a coffee shop, when I happened to bump into the Director of Graduate Studies for my department. It seemed like some sort of metaphor for my graduate career.
    I think it helps to not make too big a deal out of it. That’s not so much about what you say, but how you say it. DS at one point discovered his a$$hole in the bathtub, and promptly inserted his finger. It was a little surprising, but it only became a thing when his Dad had a strong reaction, along the lines of “!!!!!! OMG stop doing that!” Which was a great reward, as far as my budding actor of a son was concerned. The behavior went away when my husband was finally able to ignore it.
    We were pretty clear with him that he had to wash his hands afterwards.
    DS touches himself a lot less now that he’s four, for whatever reason. Addressing his eczema is part of the deal….
    On a more serious note, I think we need to remember that it’s around age three when sexual abuse often begins, according to deBecker’s _Protecting the Gift_, and one of the things you need to do to arm your kids against that is to give them basic information — what their parts are called, who’s allowed to touch them and under what circumstances, and that no one else is allowed to, etc. I find this works easiest if it’s seamless with the touching-yourself conversation: It’s private to you, it’s for you only.

  30. This is totally not just a boy thing. Girls think their bodies are pretty awesome, too.We did use the ‘private’ term, but pretty casually. I don’t think it’s necessarily a shame inducing phrase unless you act like it’s OMG a big deal.
    I very specifically told the girls that it was totally okay to touch their vulvas (we’re big on correct terminology, partly because apparently kids who know the real words are better able to accurately report and describe [God forbid] sexual abuse) and other private areas, but that it was a bedroom or bathroom activity. I did casually acknowledge that hey, bodies are pretty cool things and yes, I know, it’s fun to touch your body sometimes. TOTALLY FINE.
    When they’d start twiddling away outside of the bedroom or bathroom, we would remind them and if they kept it up, we’d invite them to go to their bedrooms if they wanted to do that. It wasn’t a “Go to your room!” thing, it was just a “Would you like to play Go Fish with us, or would you like to go upstairs and touch your body?” Both acceptable choices, but those things cannot occupy the same space at the same time, you know?
    We also went over who could touch their private areas (themselves, doctors, mommy or daddy if they needed help with the bathroom).
    I also very specifically told them that their bodies were their own and that they could always tell people not to touch them, even hugs, if they didn’t feel like being touched. I told them that if anybody touched them and didn’t listen to them when they said not to, that they could tell me and I would make them stop.
    Random strangers tend to pat little girls on the head or touch their hair, and I don’t think that helps foster a sense of body ownership, which is pretty much terrible as they start to get older.
    Screw it, it’s pretty terrible at any age.
    We kept it pretty low key. This was not a marathon conversation or lecture, this stuff just came up as it came up.
    Their pediatrician did say that these are important conversations to have when kids hit about three.
    Hilarious:
    I don’t remember how this came up, but at one point when we were talking about who could and couldn’t touch their private areas. I reinforced that right now, it was only themselves, doctors, etc, but said that when they were grown ups, they could decide if they wanted other people to touch or see their private ares, too.
    My younger daughter immediately (and enthusiastically) said “I WANT other people to touch my body when I grow up.”
    “That’s fine. When you’re older, you can make that decision.”
    “HOW old, Mommy?”
    “Uh, like…16.”
    “Oh. Okay.”

  31. ds is going to be 6 saturday (woot!) and his self-stimulating activity of choice is side-lying, clothes on, rhythmic leg movements. he’s got some developmental delays, and even though i’ve started the conversation about what’s appropriate when, i don’t think he’s hearing me. whatevs, i don’t think he does it at school, though he definitely does at my parents’.my issue has suddenly come up with him starting to potty train for poop (hallelujah! damn developmental delays…). he’ll go to make a grab for his penis or try to get up without having been wiped, and i’ll have to really fight not to screech ‘stop! that’s dirty!’ and it made me wonder if that’s actually where the shaming started long long ago – not that the *activity* is ‘dirty’, but that the area was. so i’ve been trying to differentiate between ‘poop’, which is dirty and the area needs cleaning, and ‘going poop’ which is normal and a good thing, and touching bottom parts which is absolutely fine if there isn’t poop that needs cleaning. sigh.

  32. When my son was 3.5, I found him naked except for socks, playing Angry Birds on the iPod Touch, using his penis as the, uh, appendage to play the game. Boys!

  33. My son turned 4 last week, and as soon as we get home from school / work his hand makes its way into his pants. I frequently find him asleep with one hand in his diaper, too… although some of the issue is dry skin, when I asked him why he had his hand in his pants, he told me that he was “making his penis comfortable.” I guess that’s what the kids are calling it these days….

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