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Opinion: Play time

My four-year old son apparently has the makings of a flasher. Recently, when I brought him his nightly drink of warm milk he was standing on the bed exposing his genitals and giggling uncontrollably. On being asked what was so funny he spluttered, 'I'm showing you my willy', and collapsed in a heap as if it was the most hilarious thing anybody had ever done.

I'm not quite sure why my boy has decided his dick is a source of such amusement, but I hope this is a stage he passes through quickly and that he restrains exhibitionist tendencies to the confines of the house, if not his bedroom. Otherwise, I fear social services, or even the police, will be beating their way to the door.

'Inappropriate sexual behaviour' by young children is emerging as a new policy obsession. In recent weeks we have read of two children placed on the sex offenders' register for indecently assaulting other kids. New guidance for social workers state that they, and other agencies, should recognise that children are at risk from their peers, and that they should not 'dismiss some abusive sexual behaviour as "normal" between young people and should not develop high thresholds before taking action'. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is already tackling the issue in Coventry with the curiously named 'Inappropriate Sexual Behaviour Project'. This scheme aims to address cases of alleged abuse by children - whether or not an offence has been proved.

We have also learned that, from the new year, young potential 'abusers' will not even have the excuse that they didn't know they were doing something naughty. Two hundred infant schools throughout the country are to launch a scheme where teachers are to explain to their charges which parts of the body are 'private'. This is apparently to make it easier for youngsters to speak out if they have been abused. Probably for the only time in my life I'm inclined to agree with the imam of the Regent's Park mosque who, commenting on the new sex education initiative, suggested that talking to children about their 'private parts' was likely to focus their attention on them.

The very idea of discussing young children's curiosity and exploration of their bodies in terms like 'inappropriate sexual behaviour' and particularly 'abuse' is fraught with problems. It tells us more about the attitudes of adults in authority than it does about the minds of children. We can identify what is 'inappropriate sexual behaviour' because we share a sense of what is appropriate and what is 'sexual'. Children don't - they learn gradually through experience and play that some things are okay and others aren't. My lad, having just discovered that there is something 'private' about his dick, is turning it into a 'naughty' game. He's testing responses to his actions; curious to see how I'll react. 'Sexual behaviour'? I don't really think so. Indecent exposure? Get a life. It fits into a repertoire of other not-to-be-done activities that he employs to get a reaction from time to time, such as thumb-sucking, picking his nose and pretending to eat beetles.

Little boys run around playgrounds - as they have ever done - lifting up girls' skirts because they know they shouldn't do it. Little girls shriek because they know they should. This is a world away from the terrors of sexual assault. And it is hardly likely that they will be deterred because Miss Rogers says girls' bottoms are 'private'. The boys know that already - if they weren't, it wouldn't be naughty to lift up the skirts, and then it wouldn't be fun.

When social services talk about children engaging in 'abusive sexual behaviour', one is prompted to wonder how they define abuse - especially when they warn against taking it for granted that such behaviour is a normal part of growing up. Even the most liberal social worker would already know that when a 12-year old boy buggers a five-year old, it is not normal - so presumably the guidance doesn't refer to the few extreme disturbed cases. One can only imagine that we are thinking of activities that could conceivably be seen as normal - possibly because they are.

There are lots of activities that are normal and harmless when seen in the con- text of children's play and self-discovery, yet which would take on more sinister connotations in the adult world. There is no relationship between children's kiss chase and adult stalking. Childhood games of doctors and nurses are not a form of assault. Children do not have adult motivations; their actions are not imbued with the same meaning. The minute we lose the distinction between the games children play and the behaviour of adults, we make monsters in our minds.

I am confident that my boy's interest in showing off the contents of his trousers will pass and will have no long-term effect on his sexual behaviour. If he does grow into a dirty old man who exposes himself to women I am sure it will not be the result of his childish testing of boundaries. Unless, of course, he falls into the clutches of child development experts who teach him that when his little friend Amelia pinches his bottom he's a victim of abuse, and that a game of kiss chase at eight is the first step towards rape at 18.

Ann Bradley

Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999

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