Middle Childhood (5-8)
Influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud, it was once believed that middle childhood was a period of sexual “latency” in which children showed little interest in sexuality. This idea has been largely discarded. It is now generally believed that child sexual development and interest in sexuality continue unabated throughout childhood. The latency hypotheses was perhaps, in part, fed by the tendency for children, in middle childhood to begin conscious efforts, in accordance with social expectations, to confine sexuality related behaviours to where they will not be observed by others, particularly adults. As well, the concept of sexual latency appeared to be consistent with the tendency for children of this age to segregate into same gender friendships and social groupings. While children in this age range may more often choose same sex peers as friends, this does not mean that the development of their sexuality has halted.
By the end of middle childhood, most children will have developed an established sense of gender identity (i.e., awareness that they are female or male) and gender constancy (i.e., awareness that they will always be a male or female). But, in addition, they will also understand the concept of gender consistency. That is, they will recognize that gender does not change simply because gender typed behaviour may change. In other words, a child will understand that if a man puts on a dress he is still a man and does not become a woman by putting on a dress.
The process of gender role socialization is heightened during this period. Children are in the process of cementing their own cognitive self-concept of gender and are incorporating social expectations of gendered behaviour into their own behaviour. As they are seeking to cement their self-concept as male or female, children of this age often show a strong preference for gender typed clothing and activities.
At approximately 6 years of age, most children will have established a keen interest in “how babies are made”. Children are becoming cognitively sophisticated enough that they will want to know how the sperm and the egg get together. Some, but not all, children in this age range will begin to be aware of the link between reproduction with sexual pleasure. In addition to possible discussions with parents or lessons taught at school, children will hear accounts of human reproduction from peers and be aware of sexuality content in the media. Consequently, it is appropriate for parents and educators to educate children of this age about the basic aspects of human reproduction including the role of sexual intercourse in the reproductive process. Through peer interaction it is common for children of this age to hold misconceptions about sexuality and reproduction and parents and educators can help to dispel these misconceptions by providing accurate information.
Some children in this age range (although a minority) will occasionally and consciously masturbate for pleasure. This behaviour is not cause for concern provided it is not excessive or compulsive in terms of frequency and is done in private. However, it should be noted that frequent masturbation by a child in the 5 to 8 age range or inappropriate public displays of sexual behaviour may be an indication of possible sexual abuse.
Parents and educators may be less likely to observe sex play in 5 to 8 year-olds than in younger children. This does not mean that sex play does not occur in this age group, but rather that children take greater care than when they are toddlers to conceal their games from adults. Because the vast majority of children in this age group have not begun puberty, sexuality related play serves much the same function that it did at earlier ages. That is, it remains rooted in curiosity and exploration. As with earlier age groups, such play is unlikely to involve adult sex acts (oral, vaginal, anal) and participation in these adult behaviours is cause for concern. Similarly, sex play with children who are more than one or two years younger or older than a child is potentially exploitive and is cause for concern. It is common for sex play to occur with the same gender as well as with the opposite gender. If a child is involved in some form of sex play with a same gender child, this is not necessarily an indication of sexual orientation. This is so because in most cases sex play at this age is still rooted more so in curiosity than it is in sexual attraction or pleasure.
It is important to note that some children, particularly girls, in this age range will begin to show the first signs of puberty. For example, there are some girls who will have their first menstruation during this period. Consequently, children at this age should receive basic, age appropriate, information related to puberty.
Many children in this age range will become aware of issues related to sexual orientation. In other words, they will learn that not all people are heterosexual. This learning may occur in a number of ways including media, observation of gay and lesbian couples, or information related to HIV/AIDS. Initially, a child’s interest in sexual orientation is likely to be focused on the relational components of gay and lesbian relationships rather than an explicit interest in gay and lesbian sexuality, although the sexuality component may also be the subject of curiosity. In other words, children will begin to understand that same sex romantic relationships do occur. It is therefore appropriate for parents and educators to explain to children the concepts of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality.
- A child’s sense of gender identity (understanding that they are male or female), gender stability (understanding that they will always be female or male), and gender consistency (understanding that basic gender identity is not changed by changes in gender-typed appearance or behaviour) should be complete.
- Some children will show early signs of puberty (e.g., menstruation).
- Basic understanding of the process of human reproduction.
- Understands proper terminology for sexuality related body parts (e.g., vagina, penis, clitoris)
- Basic understanding of sexual orientation (heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality).
- Curiosity-based sex play with same and opposite sex friends.
- Occasional masturbation. For some children at this age, masturbation may begin to take on a pleasure oriented rather than relaxation focus.
- Use of slang words to describe body parts and sexuality.
- Signs that a child’s sense of gender identity, stability, and consistency is not established.
- Signs that a child may have been sexually abused or exploited (e.g., physical trauma to the genital area, sexually related acting out behaviour)
- Lack of knowledge related to basic aspects of human reproduction
- Unable to adopt basic social conventions related to nudity, privacy, and respect for others in social relationships.
- Basic understanding of human reproduction, including the role of sexual intercourse.
- Preparatory understanding of the basic physical changes associated with puberty.
- Understands distinctions between heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality.
- Introduction of knowledge and social norms related to the role of sexuality in relationships.
- Reinforce and expand knowledge of rights (e.g. “your body belongs to you”) and responsibilities (e.g., equal relationships) related to sexuality.