Sexuality and Childhood Development
It is important that people who guide and work with children have a basic knowledge of the development of sexuality from infancy to adolescence. While the vast majority of children do not become sexually active (in the adult sense) until they are adolescents and may not think of themselves in sexual terms, many of the building blocks of sexual development and sexual health occur in childhood.
One of the key developmental tasks faced by all children is learning how to interact with others and engage in socially appropriate behaviours. These are abilities that we are not born with. Young children are in the process of developing gender identity (the realization that they are either a boy or a girl) and gender role (adopting social characteristics typical of girls or boys). Children are also developing their understanding of relationships and values. We generally do not think of these things as sexually related but these important achievements in early child development lay the foundation for how our sexuality will develop and evolve as children become teenagers and teenagers become adults. Parents and caregivers indirectly teach infants and toddlers about sexuality when they interact with them on a number of levels including the way they speak to children, and cuddle and play with them. As children grow older, they continue to learn about sexuality as they develop relationships with family members and play mates. Children also learn a great deal about sexuality simply by observing people interact in the world around them. Thus, when the terms “child sexual behaviour” or “childhood sexuality” are used it is within a very broad context that extends to all the aspects of a child’s growth and development that may contribute to shaping their sexuality as adolescents and adults.
Parents or guardians are the first and primary sexual health educators of children. For example, infants and toddlers will typically develop their capacity to trust, their initial concepts of gender and gender relations, and their sense of basic autonomy through interaction and learning with primary caregivers. In addition, it is important to recognize the fundamental role in childhood sexuality education played by day care staff and elementary school teachers. In the day care setting, young children will experience many relevant social interactions and learning opportunities that will contribute to their knowledge and behaviour related to gender and sexuality. By the middle years of elementary school, many children will receive instruction on important sexuality issues such as healthy body image, personal safety, and basic anatomy. In late elementary or middle school most children will be taught at least something about a wide range of issues such as puberty, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, reproduction, and peer pressure, among others. It is important for educators to be aware that Canadian parents are generally very supportive of the school’s role in providing sexual health education. About two thirds of parents agree that sexual health education should begin in elementary school and over 95% agree that it should begin in either elementary or middle school.
The outline of sexual health developmental outcomes and sexual health education needs among children provided on this site is organized in the following way. The age range 0-12 has been divided into 4 age groupings: 0-2; 2-5; 5-8; 9-12. Several things should be kept in mind when considering these age groupings. First, although there are general age dependant patterns in the development of sexuality among children, any demarcation of specific age categories is, in some ways, arbitrary. The achievement of developmental tasks is often gradual and, in many cases, does not occur in clear step by step processes. Second, like in other areas of development, the rate and nature of sexuality related development will vary considerably from child to child. Thus, although the 4 age groupings used here are convenient and useful, reflecting basic patterns in the development of childhood sexuality, they should not be seen as rigid dividing lines in the course of development. In other words, there will be considerable overlap between the age groupings in terms of what can be expected in childhood sexuality development.
For each age group, an introductory discussion of key points related to child sexual development is provided. This is followed by a listing of major Developmental Outcomes, Common Behaviours, Concerns, and Learning Objectives. Developmental Outcomes refer to the sexuality related developmental achievements (e.g., abilities, knowledge, social competencies) that can be expected of children at a given age. Common Behaviours refers to sexuality related behaviours that may be observed in children who are on the path to healthy sexual development. This does not infer that a child must engage in the behaviour to be healthy or that most or all children necessarily engage in the behaviour. Rather, it suggests that at least a sizable number of children do engage in the behaviour and that it is considered healthy for children of that age group. Concerns refers to indications, symptoms, or behaviours that a child may be lagging in sexuality related development, requires additional sexuality education, requires assessment by a child health professional (e.g, paediatrician), or requires assessment for sexual abuse. Learning Objectives refers to the sexuality related areas that parents and caregivers/teachers can address to support healthy child sexual development.
For a list of documents, articles, and books that will provide educators and health professions with in-depth information and research on childhood sexual development and behaviour, please check the related resources for this topic.