In my last post I discussed empathy for children in general terms, the complexity of empathic understanding, and the difficulty adults have in feeling empathy for children. As other authors have pointed out, empathy is sometimes difficult even between adults:
“Our natural tendency is to assume greater similarity between self and other than typically exists, especially when we attempt to imagine how the other is feeling or what she is thinking;…The assumption of similarity leads people to conclude that others will feel the same way that they feel, think the same way that they think, and want the same things that they want.” (1)
In no case is that mistake more common than when adults try to understand children, especially adults who don’t have daily contact with children. In addition to the obvious obstacle of egocentric bias, some research has found that some empathic response (in terms of neural mirroring) is not simple or direct, but rather is modulated by the observer’s moral beliefs about who or what is being observed (2).
In other words, observers who believe that childhood sex play is necessarily harmful or immoral in some sense, may feel less empathy for the children engaging in the behavior, thereby misinterpreting the significance of what they are observing and responding inappropriately. In this post I will describe some specific examples of lack of empathy by adults in some of my own experience, in the hope that these revelations will inspire more humility in dealing with children.
Image copyright © Frank Adamo
Little boys don’t usually show it, but they can be girl-crazy at a very early age. When I was in kindergarten (age 4½ to 5 ½) my interest in girls was somewhat superficial, but in the first grade (age 5½ to 6½) I wanted to kiss all the girls in my class. I used to imagine I had a magic button I could press so that everyone would freeze, and I could walk around the class kissing the girls. If I pressed the button a second time, the girl I chose would unfreeze and hug and kiss me back. Other little boys I’ve known were just as attracted to girls as I was, even though we never admitted it to the girls, and we even did our best to hide our feelings from girls. We boys agreed that the oldest girls in the primary school were the most attractive to us.
Why did we feel it was necessary to keep our feelings a secret from the girls and adults? No adults ever informed us that such feelings are natural and healthy, and every indication was that physical attraction between any unrelated children is strongly disapproved of. Isn’t it insensitive and even cruel for adults to ignore children’s natural desire for physical affection with each other?
Even when children publicly disavow any interest in romance, they sometimes reveal their secret interest in subtle ways. For example, I recently observed a child in a group pick up a toy telephone and pretend to answer an incoming call. He said the caller is a boy who wants to speak to a girl present. He replied that the girl isn’t available at the moment and hung up, and the girl didn’t show any interest. A little while later the girl suddenly reminded the boy that the toy telephone is by his side, evidently revealing that she would like to overhear a similar call again.
On another occasion I guessed that a nine-year-old boy was attracted to a certain girl, so I asked him privately if he liked her. He replied: “How did you know?” I explained that I was once a little boy, too, and I often liked girls my own age, or especially older girls. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover until I was much older that girls aren’t immune to such attraction either. In the interest of balance I’ll mention a few more examples of girls’ behavior before I go on with revelations of my own early masculine experience.
As an adult a few little girls have offered to marry me when they grow up, even though I’m not unusually attractive. I always graciously accept their proposals. Such childish declarations should not be criticized or made fun of, anymore than when a child declares she wants to be a brain surgeon when she grows up. A famous pedagogue in history actually did marry one of his former pupils 30 years his junior when she grew up.
Young ladies can sometimes be very bold. Once I was teaching the third-grade (pupils aged 8½ to 9½), and in the middle of an English lesson I happened to have a pesky spontaneous erection sitting at my desk in front of the class. One of the pupils suddenly hurt himself and cried out, so I got up to go to him, as did several other pupils, and one of the girls evidently noticed my condition when I stood up. Taking advantage of the momentary crowd and confusion, she surreptitiously wrapped her hand around my erect penis briefly.
At the time I didn’t see any need to react, and I still believe no reaction was called for after such a natural and innocent expression of youthful curiosity. It is sad to consider that other adults may assume they know it all (“she is probably an abuse victim!”), and react in a completely inappropriate manner. Shame on any adult who embarrasses a child, but in reality the world is filled with incompetent parents and teachers acting as models for shame.
On another occasion I was already an aging 40-year-old when at a New Year’s Eve party I met a family and their 10-year-old daughter for the first time. At midnight somebody turned out the lights momentarily, and the 10-year-old standing next to me took advantage of her sudden invisibility to kiss me unexpectedly on my lips. Before I could react the lights came back on and I felt relieved that nobody had noticed. Under the circumstances I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to her privately about it afterwards. Ideally, she should have been instructed that parental jealousy is sometimes out of proportion to a child’s expressions of affection to other adults, and if others witness such behavior they may use it as an excuse to attack her character.
A similar experience occurred once when an older (teenage) girl kissed me deeply right in front of other students and her teacher. We had been dancing together at a contra-dance (in which everybody dances with everybody else), so everyone was in a state of general arousal. I suspect that her motivation may have been more complex than simple arousal, but nobody can say that with certainty. (See my post on Sexual Equality about how Western culture tends to deny girls’ sexual desire.)
Her teacher felt that a scolding later was necessary, at least to protect himself from a possible accusation of insufficient supervision. But I would have preferred a casual discussion with the girl about such behavior rather than a scolding. When I was a teenager my same-age peers were the objects of my fantasies; I don’t remember ever feeling very aroused by any of my older female teachers. But there is probably different chemistry in age differences when the genders are reversed.
For many years I have allowed children to take my audio recorder outside the classroom to record anything they want, without fear of being overheard by classmates. They sometimes sing, tell jokes, record other children’s conversations, etc. One 10-year-old girl recorded: “I want an older boy, an adult.” Such a seemingly scandalous confession is actually quite understandable considering that many boys at that age (especially when they are together) express cruel hostility to girls. Since she knew I would eventually listen to what she recorded, it’s also possible she said that only to be provocative. But even if that is the case, her choice of provocation is very interesting.
Back to my own childhood. When I was 12, I engaged in sex play a few times with a girl who was 14. She was fairly developed, with breasts and profuse pubic hair, unlike me: I had no pubic hair at all yet, except maybe some random blond peach fuzz. The first time, we were in a large group of kids so we were more in less in public. But on a later occasion we were in her home with only two other boys present, so I felt less distracted and less inhibited.
It was a Saturday afternoon and we boys ran into her on the sidewalk outside her house. I suggested that we go into the vacant building on the block where we usually went, but she said her parents and two brothers weren’t home, so we could go in there. I had never been inside her house before but I felt right at home. Without wasting any time on preliminaries we decided to do it in the living room. We didn’t know how much time we had before somebody came home so she quickly lay down on a couch and pulled her pants and underwear down, but kept her blouse on.
I asked if I could unbutton her shirt to see her breasts, but she refused. I said: “Showing yourself down there is much worse, so why won’t you let me see your breasts?” I suspect she was worried that I might laugh because her breasts were small, but when she saw how eager I was she realized I would appreciate the privilege.
She unbuttoned her blouse and she wasn’t wearing a bra so I was immediately presented by the beautiful sight of her organs of nourishment standing up straight. I immediately reached down to cup them with my hands, and they were wonderfully firm, almost hard. I asked if I could kiss them, and she seemed surprised but nodded. I bent down and not only kissed the side of her breasts but sucked on her breast skin until a red mark formed, what we used to call a “hickie,” (usually applied to a girl’s neck by a boyfriend).
Besides being fascinated by her profuse, dark public hair, I was amazed when I inserted my finger between her labia and discovered she was wet. I didn’t realize that spreading a girl’s legs is necessary to penetrate the vagina, so I inserted my little erection between her closed thighs, close against her labia. My gentle thrusting didn’t bring me to orgasm but I enjoyed the experience immensely anyway. Since it was the first time being really intimate with someone in a private, comfortable place, it felt like the most wonderful experience in my life, and I hope she enjoyed it too.
I looked forward to being with her again, but as described in Learning About Love adults intervened to prevent us from enjoying any further contact. I don’t know how the poor girl reacted to her parents’ insensitivity, but I imagine she was devastated by her parents’ discovery. Perhaps she was insulted and beaten, and her parents probably forced her to lie to protect the family’s “dignity,” though an odd form of dignity it was.
I think that continued contact with the girl might have played a positive role in our personal maturation as well as our social development. Instead, the punitive interference of adults made me fearful and overly cautious in the future. I don’t know what ill effects the girl suffered, but her parents’ insensitivity in terminating our friendship and any future contact was clearly disgraceful.
The girl and I felt no “romantic” love for each other, but why should that matter? We were merely friends having fun together. That’s what friends are for. Confused adults project immense significance into early sex play as well as other transgressions against current convention, but adult interference is wholly inappropriate to what the young participants may actually experience as exciting, casual learning.
Another girl who was 11 was someone I felt particularly attracted to. I had enjoyed casual sex play with her little sister, but the 11-year-old excited me more than any other girl. She was blond and thin and quiet, but I think she knew that children considered her very attractive. Her breasts were just starting to bud, and you could see her cute little buds from the side through her buttoned blouse. She lived in another area and only came around our neighborhood a few times.
One summer evening I suggested we go into a dark parking lot which was isolated except for several smaller children who followed us to watch. She stood up against a wall as I put my arms around her waist, and I began pressing and thrusting against her pubic area, without undressing, what we used to call “grinding” (now called freak dancing) or “dry humping.” I felt incredibly elated, as if I had satisfied a powerful dream. But the physical pleasure was minimal; what elated me was that I was doing something with this particular girl.
At some point I pulled her waistband out to look down toward her pubis, but don’t remember seeing much except the absence of a male organ. I tried to reach my hand inside her blouse to touch her breast buds, but she pushed my hand away. I couldn’t understand her reticence, but I respected her preferences. The smaller children watching began talking and laughing, which might attract adult witnesses, so we left. We had to sneak around like little criminals, when ideally our parents should have welcomed us to play lovers at home with responsible supervision. I later heard that she had found an older boyfriend, and although I felt disappointed, I soon found other girls to interest me.
On hindsight I think parents should anticipate children’s desire for sexual experimentation, and allow or encourage them to enjoy sex play. Children would benefit from sex education that specifies little things like: what some boys and girls like and don’t like, and the value of talking about personal preferences and expectations beforehand to avoid disappointment or uncomfortable surprises later. It would also be useful to specify that sex play entails no emotional commitments, unless both parties agree beforehand. That may seem obvious to adults, but due to my inadequate (nonexistent) sex education the thought of communicating in detail beforehand never crossed my mind when I was 12.
It’s possible that the difficulty some adults have in empathizing with children may have a physiological basis. There is some evidence that empathy is akin to mental simulation, and some individuals who lack certain kinds of body movements are unable to even mentally simulate those movements (3). Since many adults are sexually dysfunctional, they may have difficulty imagining that children who are not sexually dysfunctional may experience sex play as positive.
The relation between empathy and morality is very complex and there is a vast literature on the subject that merits further discussion in future posts. In the meantime let me say that I suspect my personal experiences are not unusual; positive sexual thoughts and experiences may be common among children, but due to the current mass hysteria over child sexual abuse it is not considered acceptable to publicly admit early sexual desire and experiences that were positive or at least neutral.
Accurate empathy and moral judgment are facilitated by broad and unbiased information about what children actually feel and experience, rather than one-sided political indoctrination about what may actually be relatively rare cases of insensitive and exploitative abuse. I hope my courage in describing my sexual experience will inspire others to report their neutral or positive childhood experiences as well.
1. Coplan, Amy. Understanding Empathy: Its Features and Effects. in Coplan, Amy and Goldie, Peter (Eds.) Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford Univ. Press, 2011.
2. Singer, T. et al. Empathic Neural Responses are Modulated by the Perceived Fairness of Others. Nature 439: 466-9. Cited in Coplan.
3. Currie, G. & Ravenscroft, I. Recreative Minds. Oxford Univ. Press, 2002. Cited in Coplan.