Stepping into the garden this past spring, I saw my first-grader holding an odd, almost motionless position on the gymnastics bar by the garage. It was something like a half-pull-up. With her eyes squeezed shut in concentration, she gripped the bar overhead, abs tight, legs wound together, her feet suspended a few feet from the grass. She swayed ever so slightly, like a peapod on the vine.
“Ready to head to the store?” I asked.
“Just a sec,” she said cheerfully, cracking one eye. “I’m tickling my bottom.”
Apparently she’d discovered that dangling with her muscles clenched just so could bring about a particular very nice feeling. “You should try it, Mom,” she said, dropping to her feet and dusting her hands. “It’s amazing.”
The bar was too low — my knees would drag on the ground, I replied, sounding weirdly legalistic, and wondering whether there was more I could — or should — say.
Surely, you’ve seen the kids mounting throw pillows, humping stuffies, rubbing on seat belts and rulers and bicycle seats. They’re breastfeeding dolls, stuffing Legos in their underpants, going to town on the piano leg. No doubt at this very moment, children are straddling hot-tub jets and squatting over sprinklers, scooting down tree branches and riding fence rails. One glitter-dusts her crotch. Another inserts a marble. Barbies grind. A pair on a playdate drop trou.
Curious about incipient twinges of physical arousal, little kids stumble into funny ways of triggering them — and most fool around with their genitals now and then. Up to 85 percent of adults say they remember playing sexual games with other children before hitting puberty. Experts tell shuddering parents and teachers that such behaviors are all normal, healthy, and developmentally expected. And then they prescribe ways to eliminate them.
“It’s okay in private,” we’re instructed to explain to young twiddlers.
“There are better ways to learn,” we say after catching kids playing doctor, telling them to pull up their briefs and offering a body book instead.
“Your body belongs to you, and you must keep it private,” we dutifully recite, maybe sensing a contradiction: If it’s really theirs, can’t they choose to share?
“It’s just not appropriate,” we might tell somewhat older kids who want to skinny dip, or attend a mixed-gender slumber party.
My own attempt to find answers led me to the Dutch approach — or maybe it’s more accurate to say Holland’s example found me. You might have heard of the famously open approach to sex ed in the Netherlands, with parents teaching babies accurate terminology for body parts, school sex ed starting in kindergarten, and even, for many teenagers, romantic sleepovers being allowed at home. But that’s not even the half of it.
Having lived in Amsterdam when my children were younger, I can tell you the Dutch approach is even more different from ours than you may have imagined — and far more brilliantly practical.
For starters, health experts instruct parents to celebrate their children’s self-pleasuring. Isn’t that a nice feeling! Privacy isn’t always insisted upon. After all, is there anything else we tell children they’re free to do, but only in total secrecy? One friend in Amsterdam laughingly told me the story of her 3-year-old masturbating (she didn’t avoid the word) in her own bedroom — while a repairman worked on the window outside. “It was her right,” the mother told me. “I wasn’t going to shame her.” She chose not to interrupt, and the repairman paid no mind.
Privacy isn’t always practical for children, who hardly understand the concept until school age. Sometimes there’s a worker at the window, and some fetishes are fixed in public: the playground pole, the shopping-cart seat divider. So then what’s next? you might be thinking. Twelve-year-olds whacking off in the living room? The Dutch would say, don’t be ridiculous. As kids develop their judgment, they notice for themselves what’s socially acceptable. Their parents aren’t doing it in public, either, after all.
Most of us would acknowledge that nudity is often nonsexual, but the Dutch live like it is. They’ll go naked with the kids in the shower, say, or briefly on the patio to refill the bird feeder while the espresso machine warms up. In Amsterdam, parents allow their kids — even elementary schoolers — to play naked in the city’s big central wading pool. Sad but true, voyeurs with cameras do sometimes lurk. Even the vigilant parents, though, the ones who I saw confront suspicious photographers, don’t always insist on bathing suits for their kids. Restricting their freedom “is not really fair to the children, is it?” one Dutch mother explained poolside. Adult bad behavior isn’t their fault, she told me, and appalling as it is to us, the leering most likely won’t hurt our kids. What actually might, she said, is replacing their physical unselfconsciousness with the toxic notion that their bodies bring trouble.
Of course, children must learn that not every adult has safe intentions. Aside from arming kids with accurate body knowledge and reassuring them that being abused is never a child’s fault, the trick, it seems, is to balance out the scary stuff by giving equal weight to pleasure. The Dutch children’s book for ages 3 and up NEE! (No!) by Sanderijn van der Doef covers scenarios from the candy-offering stranger to the lap-patting neighbor to safe versus unsafe secrets. Yet half the pages depict happy kids experiencing safe, pleasant ways to be treated. After coaching young readers through various ways of saying “no,” the last page invites children to shout their loudest “YES!”
Another difference that startled me: In Holland, playing doctor is explicitly allowed — sometimes even at school. In exchange for the privilege of doktertje spelen, children learn they must follow certain rules — everyone plays willingly, no pain whatsoever, and nothing in any orifices — promulgated in parenting-advice columns, pamphlets from the pediatrician’s office, classroom curricula, and picture books.
But, you might wonder, isn’t child-to-child sexual exploration unsafe? Won’t it teach kids to take advantage of others, or prime them to be exploited? My Dutch friends say this is precisely why we must let them play: so they can learn fundamental lessons about autonomy, consent, and boundaries — all in balance with positivity, pleasure, and fun. Instead of telling little kids not to touch each other, the Dutch approach is that you have to do it safely, and play nice.
Dutch parents and teachers want young people to love their bodies and relish their sexuality not because they’re hedonists, but because they’re pragmatists. More effective than teaching young people simply to wait for sex, Dutch sex-ed consultant and curriculum writer Elsbeth Reitzema told me, is teaching them to recognize when they’re genuinely prepared and keen for that step. That is likely why most Dutch teenagers characterize their first sexual experience as fully wanted and fun, but only about half of their American peers say the same. Furthermore, Dutch boys and girls are equally as likely to feel good about their first time, whereas surveys show most American boys walk away happy while most girls feel regret.
While we’re obligated to pass on an education to the next generation, we are not obligated to hand down our discomfort. When my daughter suggested I try hanging from her gymnastics bar, she was inviting me to share in something wonderful she felt. Later, I wished I could have dropped my hang-ups and given it a whirl. The parents and teachers who are my role models simply force themselves to take a deep breath, drop a vocal register, and behave with children as if sexuality is a normal part of life — something most of us really do believe, even if it’s not something we always feel.
Bonnie J. Rough is the author of Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids About Sex, Love, and Equality, out August 21 from Seal Press.