Early Childhood Education

Sex and Sexuality in Young Children


The story of sex and early childhood education is the story of its disappearance. These days, when sexuality is discussed in early childhood educational settings, it is most often in the context of danger and the need to protect children from sexual abuse and preschool teachers and directors from allegations of abuse. It has not always been this way. It need not be this way. And, many believe, it should not be this way.

Sex is an important topic for early childhood education because young children are sexual in the following four ways:

1. Infantile sexual desires and interests. One of Sigmund Freud’s most important contributions was to expand our understanding of sex from something that starts at puberty and involves only the genitals to a lifelong process of bodily pleasures, attractions to others, and emotional attachments. Freud generally used the term libido rather than sex to refer to these feelings, desires, and attachments and he suggested that the libido is a force of energy that flows within us from the day we are born (indeed, if not earlier, for even in the womb a fetus can be observed sucking his or her thumb). For Freud, thumb sucking and more generally the pleasures associated with the mouth are the first stage of sexuality, a stage he called the oral stage. Freud suggested that as the child matures the oral stage is followed by the anal stage, which is a period from about the ages of two to four when children take a great interest in urination and defecation and bodily control. Next comes the oedipal or genital stage that begins around four years of age when children become interested in their own and each others’ genitals, in the differences between the sexes, and with couples and romance, including the questions of what goes on between their parents, where babies come from, and who they will one day marry.

A century or so ago, when Freud was writing, these psychoanalytic ideas had a great influence on the field of early childhood education. In books for teachers and parents published in the first half of the twentieth century, Freud’s work was often cited to encourage parents and teachers of young children to view children’s sexual behaviors, interests, and questions as normal and healthy and to avoid repressive responses to young children’s fledgling expressions of sexual curiosity. For example, in her 1920 book, Nursery School Education, Miss Grace Owen wrote as follows:

What numbers of children have their development impeded and their tempers spoiled by their mothers’ over-anxiety about furniture and clothes and respectability! We are just beginning to realize, largely through the work of Jung and Freud and other psychoanalysts, how great is the danger of the repression of the instincts and appetites— the dynamic forces of the mind.. .. What the nursery school teacher can do is to prevent unnatural repression of primitive impulses.... The morality of a civilized community must not be imposed on the child by the wholesale suppression of his natural instincts. (pp. 6, 53)

In the twenty-first-century early childhood setting, adults routinely monitor and restrict what Miss Owen considered children’s “natural instincts.” Today, four- and five-year-old children are vulnerable to accusations of sexually abusing their classmates. Kissing games and playing doctor, common activities of young children just a generation ago, are now activities that routinely lead to calls home, official reports, suspensions and, in rare cases, legal proceedings.

2. Gender Formation. By the 1950s, Freud’s influence had receded in early childhood education as Freud’s focus on the stages of young children’s sexuality was replaced by Erik Erickson’s emphasis on the stages of the development of identity. For Erikson, a key dimension of what he called the quest for autonomy, initiative, and intimacy in young children is the formation of a gendered identity, an understanding of oneself as male or female. Erikson’s influential book Childhood and Society (1950), which used to be a required reading for preservice early childhood educators, not only described what he called the “psychosexual stages,” but also presented case studies of young boys and girls who were struggling with problems of sexuality and gender. In the 1970s, the women’s movement’s focus on the formation of femininity under patriarchy led progressive early childhood educators to turn their attention to preschool classrooms as sites of gender formation. Teachers were warned of the dangers of sexism in the curriculum, and of the tendency to consciously or unconsciously pressure boys and girls to play out rigid, traditional notions of femininity and masculinity as, for example, in play in the housekeeping corner where only girls play at cooking and cleaning while only boys pretend to be firefighters, cowboys, and astronauts.

In recent writings, especially by reconceptualist scholars, concerns about sexism have expanded to include heteronormativity, a term used to describe the pressure put on us all, beginning with young children, to assume that the only normal family formation is one with a mother and father living in the same household and that the primary goal of life should be marriage with someone of the opposite sex (see Boldt, 1997).

3. Embodiment. Writing some fifty years ago, Jean Piaget taught us that preschool-aged children are in the sensory-motor stage, by which he meant that their primary way of thinking about and interacting with the world is through their bodies. Before we begin to think abstractly, only in our heads, we think concretely, by connecting what we are thinking about to what we are seeing and touching. Before we begin to think concretely, which happens around age six, we think through and with our bodies. Even though Piaget’s project centered on cognitive development, his work taught early childhood educators to appreciate the importance of children’s physicality. This emphasis reinforced the focus on movement, the senses, and the body that formed the beginnings of early childhood education in the work of Friedrich Froebel.

It is ironic that a field that has focused so closely on the importance of the body has recently shifted dramatically to an overemphasis on the mind, often to the detriment of the body. No Child Left Behind and Brain Development are used to justify more time spent on learning letters and less time on movement, more time in the classroom and less time on the playground, and more time sitting in front of computers and less time engaging in physical contact with others, of either the affectionate or rough-and-tumble variety. From a psychoanalytic point of view, this movement away from the body to the mind constitutes an unwise, unhealthy retreat from sexuality, broadly defined—a retreat contemporary feminist psychoanalytic writers call “disembodiment” (cf. Elizabeth Grosz, 1994).

4. Sexual Danger. There is now and presumably always has been sexual abuse of young children. This is a terrible thing, a far too common thing, but contrary to popular fears, not something that happens very often in early childhood education settings. Research suggests that the sexual abuse of children happens mostly at home, perpetrated mostly by family members, mothers’ boyfriends, and, less often, neighbors. There are very few proven cases of the sexual abuse of children in early childhood education and care settings. And yet a few high-profile cases (e.g., the notorious McMartin case), based on allegations that turned out to have little or no basis in reality, have created the public misperception that young children are vulnerable to sexual abuse in preschools. While some families are likely reassured by the subsequent focus on finger-printing preschool teachers and creating and enforcing rules about “safe touch” and “no touch” policies in early childhood education settings, others believe that such policies have had counterproductive effects on the lives of young children and the people who care for and educate them. Some blame this heightened focus on preventing sexual abuse in preschools on a society unwilling or unable to prevent the sexual abuse of young children in the home, where it actually occurs. Others point to a more pervasive problem in contemporary American society, not just of sexual abuse of young children but more generally of their hypersexualization, as can be seen, for example, in “Little Miss” beauty pageants, advertising, and internet pornography sites that turn children into objects of sexual desire.



Early childhood professionals have an ethical responsibility to advocate for policies that keep young children safe. In our zeal to protect young children, however, we must take care not to misplace our concerns and to thereby distort the world of the early childhood classroom. Fears connected with sexuality are negatively impacting early childhood education in several important ways. There were never many men in this historically female field, but now there are almost none. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) calculated that less than 4 percent of preschool teachers in the United States are men and they only represent about 1.3 percent of family home care providers. It is not uncommon for men teaching in preschool and lower elementary classrooms to be told by school directors that they need to be moved to a higher grade or to a job where they do not have direct contact with young children, thereby avoiding unwarranted accusations. While men in general are discouraged from working in the early childhood classroom, the situation is even more acute for gay men, who are constructed as sexual predators, unfit to work with young children (Silin, 1995; Tobin, 1997). In this climate of fear, female teachers are also suspect and limited in the ways they can interact with children. For example, many preschools have instituted rules that prevent preschool teachers from cleaning up students who soil themselves in bathroom accidents. Preschool teachers in many locales are required to attend “no touch” and “safe-touch” workshops where they are told to not hold children on their laps (Johnson, 2000), or if they do, to make sure the child sits “side-saddle” and not with legs apart and facing away rather than toward the teacher. These restrictions on adult behavior conjure images of children-at- risk. They also contribute to an image of children-as-risky. The early childhood education classroom has been turned into a “panopticon,” a site where teachers feel they must continuously have all of the children in their class within their sight, to prevent sex play, sexual abuse, and other perceived dangers. In combination, these orientations to sex and sexuality represent a dramatic shift away from a view of sexuality as an essential component of the lives of young children and an important dimension of their healthy physical and mental development. See also Gender and Gender Stereotyping in Early Childhood Education; Parents and Parent Involvement; Reconceptualists.

Further Readings: Blaise, Mindy (2005). Playing it straight: Uncovering gender discourses in the early childhood classroom. New York: Routledge; Boldt, Gail (1997). Sexist and heterosexist responses to gender bending. In J. Tobin, ed., Making a place for pleasure in early childhood education. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Grosz, Elizabeth (1994). Volatile bodies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press; Johnson, Richard (2000). Hands off. New York: Peter Lang; Jones, Alison (2001). Touchy subjects: Teachers touching children. Dunedin, NZ: University of Otago Press; Owen, Grace (1920). Nursery school education. New York: E. P. Dutton; Silin, Jonathan (1995). Sex, death, and the education of children: Our passion for ignorance in the age of AIDS. New York: Teachers College Press; Tobin, Joseph (1997). Making a place for pleasure in early childhood education. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Tobin, Joseph (2001). The missing discourse of sexuality in contemporary American early childhood education. In Jerome Winner and James Anderson, eds., The annual of psychoanalysis. Vol. 23: Sigmund Freud and his impact on the modern world. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, pp. 179200.

Joseph Tobin