You walk into your classroom and overhear two voices in the cloakroom, “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours,” or you’ve noticed one girl frequently rubbing herself against the side of her desk, or one of your students is obsessed with drawing penis-shaped figures. What do you do? Although you know sexual behaviors such as masturbation, exploration, and sex play are a natural part of children’s growing up, you’d rather not see it in your classroom.
Sexually inappropriate behaviors pose a delicate topic for many teachers and parents. You may find yourself in the uncomfortable position of discussing with children topics you do not like talking to anyone about. Somehow you have to explain that although sexual behaviors like masturbation are normal, children are not allowed to do them in school, and some things like sexual intercourse they shouldn’t do at all until they’re older. All the while keeping a relaxed matter-of-fact tone, so children don’t get too alarmed or intrigued by what you are saying.
You should anticipate a certain amount of curiosity from schoolchildren about what their body parts look like and feel like. It’s when a child’s curiosity develops into a habit or experimentation that a problem arises. Children may engage in too much masturbation if they feel unwanted by their parents, get little satisfaction from other aspects of their lives, have few friends, feel stress or anxiety, or think they’re a failure at school. Sex play may be prompted by children watching their parents engage in sexual activity, curiosity, or peer pressure.
o Try to keep children busy, so they don’t have time to develop captivating interests in their bodies. Encourage free-time activities such as team sports, clubs, and games.
o Do not leave young children along for lengthy periods of time without checking on them.
o Answer children’s questions about sex in a truthful, straightforward way. Explanations can dispel the need for exploration. The tricky part in explaining sex is saying enough so children understand, but not too much that you leave them more confused than they were in the first place. A good rule of thumb is to answer only the question which a child asks you. The following example shows you what I mean. One mother recounts how her daughter came home from school one day and asked her, “Where do I come from?” The mother launched in on a long explanation of the birds and the bees. “No,” said the child impatiently. “My friend Susie comes from Boston. Where do I come from?” Misunderstanding is often created by giving children either the wrong information, or too much information, more than they can put meaning to.
o Ask your school guidance counselor to present a class on sex, tuned in to the relevant concerns and vocabulary of your students.
o If children are masturbating, tell them there’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing, but school is the wrong time and place for doing it. Explain that playing with their body is a private activity, which they should only do privately, in a place like their bedroom at home.
Children who are engaging in sex play must not feel that what they are doing is weird; but at the same time they must understand it is not appropriate for them to do. It is an activity they are too young to understand, but will discover more about as they get older.
o Children may be masturbating because they are nervous or worried about something. Ask them if anything is bothering them, and if there is, try to help them work out a solution.
o If you notice children masturbating, ask them to place their hands clasped together on the top of their desk. This is a subtle time-out procedure which lets the children know what they are doing is inappropriate, as well as stopping them from continuing it.