Academic journal article Childhood Education

Sexual Play: When Should You Be Concerned?

Academic journal article Childhood Education

Sexual Play: When Should You Be Concerned?

Article excerpt

While teachers were clear that such behaviors as hitting, biting, or not listening to the teacher were unacceptable, they seemed much more ambivalent and uncertain about behaviors that they perceived to be sexual.

Early childhood teachers often express concern about children's sexual development and behavior. In one research study(1) that addressed this issue (Essa, 1998), six focus groups of early childhood teachers, six to eight in each group, were asked to discuss which behaviors they found problematic, and how they dealt with such behaviors. About two-thirds of the teachers worked with children from middle-class families, and one-third of.them worked with children from low-income families. In three of the focus groups, the teachers spontaneously raised concerns about children's sexual behaviors, which they discussed at length. In fact, the third most frequently raised behavioral issue (after aggression and disobedience) had to do with sexually related behaviors. While teachers were clear that such behaviors as hitting, biting, or not listening to the teacher were unacceptable, they seemed much more ambivalent and uncertain about behaviors that they perceived to be sexual.

Why Do Teachers Feel Ambivalent About Sexual Behaviors?

There are many reasons for this ambivalence. Research on early childhood often espouses the philosophy that young children learn about the world, including themselves and others, by exploration and through hands-on activities; it follows, therefore, that youngsters learn best in an environment that is open and supportive of such exploration (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Essa, 1999). Most adults have been socialized, however, to believe that sexuality is something that is different from other behaviors, and that it cannot operate under the same rules used for other behaviors (Nevid, Fichner-Rathus, & Rathus, 1995). In addition, teachers also struggle with the many inappropriate social influences that intrude in the lives of young children today, including access to sexually explicit material through magazines, television, videos, and the Internet. They are unsure to what extent it is appropriate for young children to integrate such influences into their play.

Teachers also know that, for various reasons, some children are exposed to sexually charged environments. Children may be witness to parents' sex life at home, for example (Friedrich, Grambsch, Broughton, Kuiper, & Beilke, 1991). Does such exposure signal a problem if children play out what they witness at home? At the same time, teachers are very aware of the increased incidence of reported child sexual abuse. Could children's sexual behavior reflect abuse?

Furthermore, interpreting children's sexual behavior raises uncomfortable and often unresolved issues within teachers themselves. Where, then, does the problem lie: with the child, or with the teacher? In addition, our society sends out mixed messages about sexuality, ranging from very restrictive to totally open (Nevid, Fichner-Rathus, & Rathus, 1995; Reiss, 1991). Whose values are right? Whose values are most important? What do parents want? What does the school's administration support? Most of all, what is best for children?

The Context of Behavior

Such questions and issues, which were both explicitly and implicitly expressed by the teachers who participated in the research focus groups, suggest that early childhood teachers may lack an understanding of normal sexual development in young children and of specific behaviors that might signal an underlying problem (Essa, 1998). When considering children's sexual development, teachers should be aware that children's behaviors cannot be viewed in isolation. It is not merely the nature of the individual that explains behavior; one also must consider the process, such as interactions among individuals, as well as the context, the environment within which behavior takes place (Bronfenbrenner & Crouter, 1983). …

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