Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson
DR. DOBSON: The answer to both of your questions is an emphatic no! Unintentional (or even intentional) self-arousal in young children, specifically boys, is neither unusual nor sinful. Your little guy is simply showing that he is "properly wired." There are no long-term consequences to this kind of innocent childish behavior and it will soon resolve itself.
The only significance to early fondling activity is in how you as a parent deal with it. I've received letters from mothers who say they have spanked their preschoolers for touching themselves. Some have described great concerns about this behavior, seeing it as evidence of an immoral nature that had to be crushed. That is a very dangerous posture to take. I suggest that you not make a big deal over it.
QUESTION: That's easy for you to say. My four-year-old daughter doesn't just fondle herself at home, where we ignore it. She rubs herself whenever we are in public, such as at church or at a restaurant. How should I deal with that?
DR. DOBSON: You should respond as a teacher, not a disciplinarian. Take your daughter aside and talk about your concern. Explain that there are some things that we don't do in public — not because they are wrong, but because they are impolite. Just as you wouldn't urinate in front of other people, you should not be touching yourself when others can see you. If she continues to fondle herself, other people will think she is strange and some may laugh at her — something you're sure she wouldn't like. Your purpose in speaking this way is to sensitize her to the social implications involved in what she's doing. Show yourself to be firm and confident, not shocked or embarrassed.
The key to your approach is the avoidance of any suggestion that her body is dirty or "wrong" or evil. Such an implication might raise a whole host of other problems for your child that could carry over into adolescence and even adulthood.
QUESTION: My son is an outstanding gymnast. His high school coach says he has more natural ability than anyone he's ever seen. Yet, when he is being judged in a competitive meet, he does terribly! Why does he fail during the most important moments?
DR. DOBSON: If your son thinks of himself as a failure, his performance will probably match his low self-image when the chips are down. In the same way, there are many excellent golfers on the PGA Tour who make a satisfactory living in tournament play, but they never win. They may even place as high as second, third, sixth, or tenth. Whenever it looks like they might come in first, however, they "choke" at the last minute, and someone else wins. It is not that they want to fail; rather, they can't conceive of themselves as winners, and their performance merely reflects this image.
I once spoke with a concert pianist of outstanding talent who has resolved never to play in public again. She knows she is blessed with remarkable talent but believes she is a loser in every other regard. Consequently, when she plays the piano on stage, her mistakes and errors creep into her performance. Each time this mortifying experience has occurred, she has become more convinced of her own unworthiness in every area. She has now withdrawn into the secluded, quiet, talentless world of have-nots.
A person's self-concept is instrumental in determining those who are "winners" and those who see themselves as "losers." Professional tennis players call this characteristic "tournament toughness," but it is really nothing more than confidence in action.
Dr. Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.focusonthefamily.org). Questions and answers are excerpted from "Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide" and "Bringing Up Boys," both published by Tyndale House.