In an article entitled “When Are We Crossing a Child’s Sexual Boundaries?” the authors suggest that certain adults (vaguely referred to as “professionals”) are competent to make sexual choices for all children, rather than allowing any other adults to make sexual choices for children, or (God forbid) allowing parents and children to make their own choices (1). But in reality the supposedly enlightened elite are denying children’s agency, as well as denying the competence of any parents or other adults who disagree with what the supposedly enlightened “professionals” claim. The topic is very complex, but in this post I will point out some of the fundamental problems when some adults arrogantly attempt to prescribe simplistic sexual “boundaries” for all children.
Claiming that child sexual abuse is “more prevalent” than was believed in the past, and that many more kinds of behavior should be labeled “abusive,” the authors say they hope to educate modern parents about what professionals have learned by “working with” victims of abuse. The authors state: “It is not the purpose of this paper to blame or accuse. Obviously, if we do not understand a child’s boundaries it is because our own parents did not model proper boundaries.” Then, without further explanation or justification, the authors list what they have divined are “proper boundaries” through their vague and mysterious “work” with victims of abuse.
“1) Touching the buttocks or future erogenous zones. Some parents touch and kiss their child’s buttocks. Most likely this happened to them as a child. They are confused about this boundary. The buttocks should never be touched. The area of the breast of young girls is a future erogenous zone and should not be touched.”
We are not informed as to why the authors specify the buttocks or breast area, or why this evidently important prescription is given first place on the list. Aside from the pretentious claims of probability (“most likely”), are there careful unbiased studies published in peer-reviewed journals demonstrating causation of harm, which are so widely known that there is no need to cite any references? Quite the contrary, the lack of references indicates the absence of valid evidence to support such claims.
In addition, the very concept of “erogenous zones” is suspect. Are not the lips, ears and other parts of the body “erogenous zones” that are not to be touched? Is there careful research published in which children whose buttocks and breast area were “touched” and suffered mental or physiological injury (controlling for the possible influence of other variables), compared to children whose ears or lips were “touched” and did not suffer mental or physiological fallout? The wise “professionals” see no need to address that inconvenient question, and instead move right on to the next prescription on the list.
“2) Putting medicine on a child’s genitals. It is not appropriate to put medicine on a child’s genitals. At about 2 years of age, the child is capable of applying medicine to his/her own genitals. The parent should put the medicine on the child’s finger and then ask the child to apply the medicine him/herself.”
Here I’m tempted to assume that the authors were joking. When I told two friends about it (a husband and wife team of pediatricians), they both laughed. There is no “medicine” that a two-year-old should be entrusted to apply to his own genitals. Antibiotic, anti-inflammatory or steroid creams are not intended for a two-year-old to apply to his or her own genitals. Do the authors consider sun-block a form of medicine?
The authors seem to be expressing their own confusion about the supposed importance of avoiding manual contact with a child’s genital area. A traditional treatment of pediatric phimosis (excessively tight foreskin in baby boys), is precisely for the parent(s) to exercise the foreskin of the child’s penis regularly (daily) by using the fingers to pull (stretch) the foreskin back so that the skin will grow new cells rather than become even tighter with age and necessitate eventual surgery (partial circumcision). These “professionals” seem unaware or strangely silent about the supposedly widespread “abuse” of countless baby boys traditionally prescribed by pediatricians for decades.
“3) Bathing a child and washing his or her genitals. Some parents continue to bathe their child well up into adolescence. The parent feels as if the child cannot clean himself/herself correctly or they feel that it is an act of love to give their child a bath. For opposite sex parent and child, between the age of 4 – 5, the parent should stop bathing their child. The child is perfectly capable of washing himself/herself. If the parent must wash the child’s hair, the child should wear underwear in the tub. By age 8, the child is fully capable of washing his/her own hair without the parent’s assistance. For same sex parent and child, between the age of 4 – 5, the parent should stop bathing their child. The child is perfectly capable of washing himself/herself. If the parent must wash the child’s hair, the child does not need to wear underwear in the tub. Again, by age 8, the child is fully capable of washing his/her own hair without the parent’s assistance.”
No evidence or logic is provided for this prescription that contradicts generations, centuries, or millennia of parental practice. Nor is any evidence or logic offered for the specific ages cited or for distinguishing between what is supposedly appropriate for same-sex vs. opposite sex parents. Such precise prescriptions have been established by the “professionals” without any need to cite or describe their careful research.
I was bathed by my mother until I was 12, and I challenge anyone to demonstrate any causal link between that experience and any later mental or physiological symptoms. How could any causal link be known in such a complex set of possible variables? As far as we know, the very opposite of what the authors claim may be the case: Failing to allow children past age 4-5 to be seen by their opposite sex parent may lead to toxic body shame and stress over sexual functions. This prescription dictates simplistic moral philosophy disguised as “professional” advice.
“4) Disregarding the child’s privacy. Some parents feel that they have the right to walk in on their child whenever they please. Parents must get in the habit of knocking on doors before they enter a bedroom or bathroom. Children should be taught to close and lock bathroom doors and to always knock whenever they see a closed door. This will create future good habits and the child will learn to respect another’s privacy.”
Yes, parents should not barge in on children in the bathroom without knocking, and children should learn to respect other people’s privacy by knocking first. I agree with this purely moral prescription as long as no health claims are connected to it, except for the prescription that children should be taught to “lock” bathroom doors. Closing a door should be sufficient to ensure privacy, without an excessive concern about locking the door as well. Why not advocate bolting bathroom doors and installing an alarm as well? Or how about a video surveillance camera outside the bathroom door to discourage violators and ensure a peaceful, stress-free environment for toilet functions???
“5) Walking around the house half dressed or completely unclothed. Some parents feel that there is nothing wrong with walking around the house unclothed. They may dress and undress in front of their child and step out of the shower while the child is in the bathroom. For opposite sex parent and child, between the age of 3 – 4, the parent should stop dressing or undressing in front of the child, and they should not walk around the house unclothed. For same sex parent and child, between the age of 7 – 8, the parent should stop dressing or undressing in front of the child, and they should not walk around the house unclothed.”
Here the authors seem to assume the classic fallacy that nudity is sexually arousing, and sexual arousal is a bad thing – especially at an early age. But in reality visual arousal is an effect of hiding the reproductive organs, not exposing them. These “professionals” seem to have no experience of family and social naturism (nudism), and they seem unaware that fixation is caused by deprivation, not satisfaction.
Where is the evidence or logic in choosing any specific age after which the sight of the unclothed mature body becomes a risk factor in any problems then or later? I not only feel there is nothing wrong with nudity at any age, I strongly believe that nudity is conducive to mental and physical health by promoting comfort with the appearance of the human body rather than promoting mystery, fear and body shame.
One difference between the authors and myself is that I’m not arrogantly claiming all parents “should” walk around unclothed. I’m willing to admit it is a matter of personal opinion and personal preference, until such time as valid evidence (rather than unsubstantiated claims) clearly demonstrates a health risk.
“6) Undressing the child in public. Some parents undress their child at the park, at the swimming pool or at school in full view of other children and adults. Between the ages of 4 – 5 the child should be instructed to change in a bathroom.”
Why isn’t the child given a choice as to whether and at what age he or she prefers to be undressed in public or not? The authors here are contradicting the moral prescription they stated in 4. I agree that if a child prefers not to be changed in public, then the child’s preference should be respected. On the same token, if the child is indifferent or does want to change in public (e.g. for convenience), then the parents should not command (“instruct”) the child to change in a shame-room, I mean bathroom. The authors themselves are crossing a child’s boundaries by failing to ask what the individual child prefers.
“7) Allowing the child to sleep in the parent’s bed. Sleeping in a parent’s bed is not appropriate. Between the age of 3-4 this practice should be discontinued. The child may be invited to crawl into the parent’s bed in the morning for hugs and kisses.
This apparently arbitrary prescription is the most arrogant one so far. What is dangerous about sleeping in the same bed? Why a universal ban on all families with no exceptions? No need to explain anything, just trust the wise “professionals” who “work with” abuse victims.
There is a book that features an extensive discussion of children sleeping with parents, and the book’s authors argue convincingly that children can be allowed and encouraged to sleep with their parents if the children want to. If siblings are available at about age four or later, children themselves usually choose to sleep in a separate bed with siblings instead (2). Cases are cited in which children who sleep together have warmer personalities, fewer nighttime problems, and better relationships with other family members. Although there is no hard statistical data, I suspect that careful research would confirm the benefits of voluntary family sleeping rather than forced isolation.
“8) Being sexually intimate with a partner while the child is asleep in the same room. Some parents share their bedroom with their child and engage in sexual intimacy while they believe the child is asleep. Often times, the child is wide awake and listening. This can create confusion, fear, and arousal in a child. Therefore, always wait until the child is out of the room to engage in any form of sexual intimacy.”
Aside from the unsupported claim that “Often times, the child is wide awake and listening” this prescription seems to assume that all children are unaware of what sexual intimacy is, or else all children have been indoctrinated to believe that sexual intimacy is “bad.” But that is not the case. Some parents do provide their children with accurate, balanced and comprehensive sexuality education, so the only reason such children might feel confused or afraid is if they wonder why the parents are apparently attempting to hide sexual intimacy.
In those cases where some children have been kept ignorant about sexual intimacy, or have been taught that sexual intimacy is “evil,” dirty, etc. in some sense, then perhaps those parents should be consistent and abstain from sexual intimacy altogether for the good of the child as well as the parents’ own good.
In a previous post I addressed the claim that sexual arousal or “overstimulation” is somehow dangerous or unhealthy for children (3), but here let me add that our closest relatives – chimps and bonobos – don’t hide sexual intimacy from youngsters, and despite extensive observations by scientists from the U.S., Europe and Japan, there are no reports that our closest relatives suffer from sexual “addiction” or sexual dysfunction.
“9) Talking about a child’s genitals while the child is listening. Some parents talk to other parents about their child’s genitals in front of the child. ‘My son is well endowed. He sure is going to make a lot of women happy someday’ or ‘I just know Becky is going to have large breasts.’ This can create embarrassment and confusion in the child since s/he does not comprehend the full nature of the conversation. Therefore, there should be no mention of the child’s private body parts while the child is listening.”
Again, the authors seem to assume that all children have the same education and experience, which is not the case. In many cultures adults joke about sex in front of children, and the children are clearly aware that the adults are only joking. As far as we know, instead of creating “embarrassment and confusion” in such cases, sexual talk may prepare and inoculate experienced children for possible discomfort when interacting with peers in school or other places where the parents are not present.
The authors also seem to assume that certain body parts are inherently “private,” when in reality it is the parents themselves and other misguided teachers who indoctrinate children to label and define certain body parts as “private,” a morally prescriptive label of religious origin (4). In moral terms, every child’s whole body is private. No child has any “public” body parts.
“10) Using inappropriate names when referring to private body parts. Using profane words or calling private body parts inappropriate names such as “weenie”, “winkie”, “boobs”, and “booty”, communicates a profane view of the body that feels icky and which causes confusion in the child. The parent should only use anatomically correct terms for private body parts.”
The authors here reveal a superficial understanding of the nature of language and communication. Using “profane” (rather than sacred) words for body parts may be motivated by different reasons depending on the speaker, and may be interpreted in different ways depending on the listener. The authors see no possible confusion in referring to children feeling “icky” ???
In some languages a little girl’s genital area is called “little flower.” I interpret that choice of words as an expression of affection, and possibly an attempt to reassure children that the female genital area is beautiful rather than ugly, and I believe that most children who hear the phrase “little flower” interpret it positively rather than becoming “confused.”
My belief could be tested by surveying children about how they interpret that choice of nickname. It would also be interesting to ask children why they think some parents use the morally prescriptive label “private parts” rather than anatomically correct terms – which the authors advocate inconsistently.
“11) Telling dirty jokes, leaving provocative magazines about, allowing the child to watch movies of a sexual nature. Exposing a child to material of a sexual nature is sexual abuse.”
This dangerously arrogant prescription creates a class of criminals by definition, without the slightest scientific support or logical justification. Informal sex education, entertainment or exposure to cultural norms is a serious crime, we are told, period. In reality, it is reasonable and plausible to suspect that failure to expose children to sexual information, formal and informal, at an early age may result in future customers for psychotherapy. How convenient for these “professionals.” Discussing sex openly and humorously is an expression that sex is a normal and healthy part of life.
“12) Communication to the child that sex is dirty, evil or nasty. Some parents tell the child that the genitals are dirty and that sex is evil and nasty. They shame the child if the child touches himself/herself and may even punish the child for masturbating. Parents should never insinuate that sex or the human body is bad, dirty or nasty. If the child asks questions about the body or about how babies are made, parents should answer questions thoughtfully and appropriately. The explanation given to a four year old will be different than the explanation given to a ten year old. A number of books on the subject matter have been written. Parents can consult the books and be ready with age appropriate answers. As regards to masturbation, it is a perfectly normal practice as long as the child does it in private. On ultra-sound, male fetuses have been observed masturbating in the womb.”
Yes, childhood masturbation is normal, and parents should never insinuate that sex or the human body is bad, dirty or nasty. But doesn’t this prescription contradict the others? Are we not insinuating that sex is evil and nasty by avoiding the sight of adults nude or contact with the child’s genital area? It is true that there are “a number of books on the subject,” but they don’t all agree on what is appropriate for parents to tell children. Like many authors, these “professionals” advocate telling children about how babies are made, but avoid explicitly discussing sexual desire and sexual pleasure, which is the very crux of the matter (5).
“13) Touching, kissing or hugging the child in a flirtations way. Some parents are confused about how to express affection to the child. A mother may nibble on her son’s ear and kiss him on the neck. She may push her breasts into his face and call him ‘her little lover boy.’ A father may massage his daughter’s leg or look at her in a desirous way. Parents should show affection in appropriate ways and avoid treating their child like a sexual object.”
This prescription is more in line with conventional views about child sexual abuse, and reveals only superficial familiarity with children. These “professionals” apparently “work” primarily with adults who rely on their fallible memories of childhood experience, rather than having extensive experience with children themselves. Children are very perceptive of emotions and moods. They may not know the names of emotions, but they perceive when someone feels positive or very positive, etc. toward the child. There is no sense in hiding or exaggerating the adult’s expression of feelings for the child.
What does “flirtatious” mean anyway? I don’t see any reason why a kiss on the neck should be considered less appropriate than a kiss on the cheek or the hand. I have seen a mother kiss a little boy on his neck in full public view and I didn’t feel it was inappropriate. Many parents kiss their children on the lips (including President Obama), and I don’t think that’s inappropriate.
These pretentious authors claim to be able to precisely calculate the appropriateness of a kiss depending on the location of the body, as if all children are the same, all kisses are the same, and all areas of the neck are the same. What measuring instrument did the authors use to arrive at that calculation? Many authors assert that massage of a daughter’s leg (as part of a full-body massage) is wholly appropriate; and what does “look at her in a desirous way” mean? What measuring instrument was used to determine that commandment of mental health?
Granted, parents should not exploit a child as a sexual object, i.e. as a means to satisfy the adult’s sexual needs. But children may benefit from watching adult models being “flirtatious” with each other, and adults looking at each other in a “desirous” way. Children may also benefit from engaging and participating in similar behavior as a form of play. That is how children learn to feel comfortable about their appearance, normal body functions and reactions, and normal behavior in mature interpersonal relationships.
“14) Staring at men or women in a sexual way while the child is present. Some fathers stare at women’s’ breasts or buttocks and some women eye men’s crotches or chests while in the presence of their child. This behavior is not appropriate around children. “
This prescription clearly contradicts 12, and may be a direct result of hiding the breasts and genital area. When kids grow up seeing nudity every day, they feel no desire to stare at those familiar body parts.
When parents refrain from modeling sexual interest or desire, are they not communicating to a child that sex is dirty, evil, or nasty? The authors claim that many parents are “confused,” but the authors’ contradictions seem to express their own symptoms of schizophrenia.
“15) Using poor judgment when taking a child into a public restroom. Some parents use poor judgment when taking their child into a public restroom. A mother may take her 3 year old son into a men’s restroom while other men are standing at the urinal. Not only is she violating the privacy of the men who are standing at the urinal, but if she is married, she is also violating her husband by looking at other men’s genitals.”
Is this another one of the authors’ attempts at comedy? The authors go on to elaborate this silly prescription, writing in bold type that a mother “should never go into a men’s restroom,” as if that would be extremely dangerous! The mother “should wait outside” [sic].
As for fathers and daughters, a little girl should “never” be taken into a men’s restroom. “There may be other men using the urinal which would expose her to seeing their genitals.” Oh my God, how tragic would that be? These “professionals” seem unaware that in Japan it is traditional for fathers to bring their daughters with them into public baths, where they are exposed to seeing their father’s and many other men’s genitals. No wonder traditional Japanese women grow up to become sex addicts???
Throughout the Western World there are thousands of naturist (nudist) families and hundreds of naturist resorts and beaches where children and adults see each other completely naked all day every day, but there are no reports of mass insanity from so many children seeing normal human anatomy.
I’m much more concerned about the epidemic of emotional incest today, in which many parents try to control a child’s every thought, word, and deed, keeping children under constant surveillance, prisoners in their own homes, for the parents’ own enjoyment of absolute power.
The authors state in conclusion that crossing “any” of the so-called boundaries listed is “sexual abuse,” that children should be reminded every 3-6 months to report if anyone touches them – “especially their genitals” (so children won’t feel that sex is evil or nasty???), and when in doubt: “It is always better to refrain from doing something than to do that something which can cause harm.”
I would conclude that there is enormous room for doubt about almost everything these authors have written, and to follow that last bit of superficial and self-contradictory advice: Refrain from actively terrorizing your children against sex, and instead allow them to satisfy their natural curiosity and love of learning through play if they so choose. Respecting children entails allowing them to choose their own boundaries, whenever there is no obvious or verifiable risk of imminent harm, rather than dictating arbitrary boundaries that poorly informed “professionals” choose, as if there is verifiable scientific data to support such arrogant claims.
1) When Are We Crossing A Child’s Sexual Boundaries? (1999) By Blythe Daniel, M.A. and David Daniel, M.A. http://www.wethechildren.com/boundriesenglish.htm (last accessed 1 December 2012) I attempted to contact the authors at the email address provided, but my message came back marked: “This mailbox is no longer active.”
2) The Family Bed (2002) by Tine Thevenin.
3) Overstimulation: the Devil in Disguise? http://sexhysteria.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/overstimulation-the-devil-in-disguise/
4) Forbidden History: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe. (1992) by John C. Fout.
5) It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health. (2009) by Robie H. Harris.