Understand Your 4 and 5-year-old’s Sexual Development

May 18, 2021

by Camille Everett

Creator of Be That Place

Handwritten notes and lunchtime chats from students kickstarted Camille's mission to help families teach sex ed at home. She is a graduate of Utah State University with a bachelor’s in Secondary Health & English Education. She loves having real conversations while devouring bowls of chocolate peanut butter ice cream.

Young boy using kitchen bowls as potties for his stuffed animals

While getting ready to shower one morning, my four-year-old burst into the bathroom then abruptly stopped and stared.

“Hi,” I said as she silently and s-l-o-w-l-y walked in a circle around my naked body. Her little face had a perplexed look on it. Her pudgy little nose scrunched up in an expression of curiosity and I knew what words were coming next.

“What’s that?” she asked while pointing at me.

What a perfect opportunity to have a quick conversation about all sorts of wonderful topics — puberty, body image, privacy. You name it.

In fact, kids this age give us lots of opportunities to talk about important things because their questions are so often simple, direct and innocent. Which means that this is a great age to be laying the foundation for a positive and healthy understanding of sexual development.

Typical sexual development

Four and five-year-olds…

  • Become more curious about their own bodies, and will often explore their body by touching, pressing, and rubbing.
  • Will easily use the correct words for body parts when taught those words.
  • Establish whether they are a boy or a girl, although they enjoy playing either gender during pretend play.
  • May talk about and even engage in genital play with other kids of the same age. 
  • Undress dolls or in other ways include a toy’s “private parts” within imaginary play.
  • Start to ask questions like, “Where did I come from?” or “How did I get in Mom’s tummy?” These questions are related to a developing understanding of time, place, and location — they are not questions about intercourse.
  • Like using potty words, even in play.
  • Show interest in how boys and girls use the bathroom differently.
  • Are naturally unconcerned about nudity and may show interest in touching other people’s bodies (such as a woman’s breasts).
  • May copy adult behaviors like kissing or holding hands. 
  • Show increased understanding of how boys and girls are different, both physically and in perceived gender roles. 
  • Will dress and undress in front of others when playing dress up.

Modeling healthy words and behaviors

Especially at this age, parents can encourage healthy development through modeling healthy behaviors.

Young kids really watch adult behavior closely and are very quick to copy what they hear and see. You may have noticed how your own kids copy your words, expressions and behaviors — both good and bad.

This is why it’s so important to step back and give sincere thought to the opinions, words and behaviors that we share daily with our kids. Take the following questions as a starting point for self-reflection:

  • Do I talk about my own body in a positive way?
    • “I think I look nice today.”
    • “My body can do so many amazing things.”
    • “My body needs some positive attention. Do you want to go on a walk with me?”
  • Do I stereotype each gender with negative comments?
    • “Men are so insensitive.”
    • “Women always say too much.”
    • “Boys always get into trouble.”
    • “Girls are so moody.”
  • Do I pressure my son or daughter to play with certain toys, wear certain clothes, or like certain colors because I’m afraid of what others might think?
  • Do I honestly answer the questions my kids ask me?
  • Do I use respectful terms when talking about genders and body parts?

Find every-day moments to point out examples of appropriate behavior and positive words. These are really foundational moments, which means the more positive, honest and upfront you can be, the better.

How parents can encourage healthy development

Parents can…

  • Answer their child’s questions simply, while also asking questions in return.
  • Teach the correct names for the private parts of the body.
  • Respond calmly if their child and friends are found engaging in sexual play. Treat this innocent curiosity as an opportunity to talk about privacy and respect for every person’s body.
  • Talk about gender stereotypes: not all girls like pink, sparkly tutus and not all boys like to play with cars and action figures. 
  • Teach that a person’s penis, vulva, and buttocks are private parts and that only certain people are allowed to touch these parts at certain times, like during a well-child checkup or when taking a bath.
  • Introduce the word “consent” and explain that each person can choose how they want their body to be touched, including tickles, hugs, and kisses even from family members.
  • Firmly enforce the concept of “stop means stop” and “no means no.”
  • Model appropriate behavior, including healthy interactions within relationships and respectful comments about genders.
  • Routinely check in on play dates with friends and interactions between siblings. 
  • Set and enforce safety rules about screen time.
  1. Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). “What is Normal Childhood Sexual Development?” Families are Talking, vol. 3, no. 4, 2015, https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/FAT_Newsletter_V3N4-Normal-Childhood-Sexual-Development.pdf.
  2. National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth (NCSBY). https://www.ncsby.org/content/childhood-sexual-development#link2. Accessed 20 May 2021.
  3. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). “Sexual Development and Behavior in Children.” https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/sexual_development_and_behavior_in_children.pdf.