In this counseling answer:
•Parents should be able to discuss sexuality with children with age-appropriate education concerning what they are feeling, what behaviors are acceptable and which are not.
•By educating children on what they may see and learn in society versus what we as Muslims follow, is important as it separates societal behaviors from taught behaviors.
•Keep the lines of communication open with the child, educate at age-appropriate levels, valid the child’s feelings, yet redirect and teach skill sets for the child to rely on, maintain good relations and communication with educational institutions so you will feel comfortable discussing concerns as well as keep all in prayer.
It is a most important concern for many parents. Research studies in Child Development has outlined several stages of growth and maturation in children concerning sexuality. Children even as young as two or three become curious and will often undress, touch/rub themselves and begin to develop an interest and curiosity in the human body. Children ages 4-6 may begin to masturbate, talk about private parts, ask questions, and explore private parts with other children.
From the ages of 7-12 the curiosity intensifies with the above-outlined behaviors and with other children, often engaging in sexual behavior with others in their age group. While most children may not fully understand the nature of their behavior or that it is haram, they often know it is frowned upon hence their desire for privacy and experimenting in “secret”.
While the behavior you witnessed between your two young cousins is haram, their age group suggests that it is experimentation based from budding hormones, curiosity and lack of self-control modules.
In fact, research studies find this type of experimentation common in this age group and it is not done out of a sense of wanting to defy natural laws and morals but out of innocence and curiosity. Even if a group of children were left in alone on an island fully clothed with no external influences, these behaviors may emerge as it is biological. The child is not concerned or aware with the boundaries of spiritual laws or societal laws, but impulsive and curious.
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At this age, parents should be able to discuss sexuality with children with age-appropriate education concerning what they are feeling, what behaviors are acceptable and which are not.
Parents should strive to make their children’s growth and development of sexuality and sexual feelings one of normalcy, for it is. This is how Allah created us. One should be taught boundaries, self-control, as well as other appropriate outlets for sexual feelings which correspond with Islamic teachings.
However, one should never shame a child as it will only lead to the child feeling they are abnormal and may push them into doing things in secret. Discussing sexual feelings openly with children in the context that it is a part of normal growth and development is vital. It is also vital to educate children on appropriate behaviors, social norms regarding sexual behaviors as well as Islamic ones. For instance, parents may point out that while in non-Islamic countries it may be okay to date and kiss in public, but as Muslims, we do not do that because it is haram and our bodies are precious and are to be saved for marriage.
By educating children on what they may see and learn in society versus what we as Muslims follow, is important as it separates societal behaviors from taught behaviors.
When a child is taught behaviors from a young age, such as what is acceptable and why, they tend to understand early on what is expected from them, and this understanding deepens as they grow older.
Regarding your 2 1/2 year old niece, she may experiment as it is inherent (normal) however her parents will be able to divert her energies towards other things when they see her engaged in these behaviors, such as giving her a favorite toy, or by redirecting her attention to towards another activity.
Contrary to feeling that societies accept sexual behaviors in children, most societies, in fact, do not. Daycare centers, schools and other institutions, for the most part, try to curb these behaviors to the best of their abilities. Having open conversations with your niece’s school/teachers will help promote a healthy relationship wherein her parents can feel comfortable asking questions, expressing any concerns which may arise as well as demonstrate an openness and ability to work with the school-teachers.
By starting to educate your niece now in an age-appropriate manner, as grows older she will have the formation of building blocks of acceptable sexual behaviors. She will also begin to learn that what she is feeling is normal, but she will also begin to learn what behaviors are permissible and what are not. Too often parents are shocked when they discover their children are having sexual feelings and/or behaviors when biologically it is a part of normal growth and development.
The important factor is to teach them about their bodies, assure them it is normal, but to set boundaries based on Islam teachings and to explain why. Studies have shown that when a child understands why a behavior is prohibited, they are more likely to assimilate this reasoning into their own cognition and skill set.
Not knowing why, or simply being told “it’s bad” or “your bad” may lead to increases in target behaviors as well as intense feelings of being abnormal, defective or otherwise not a good person.
Keep the lines of communication open with the child, educate at age-appropriate levels, valid the child’s feelings, yet redirect and teach skill sets for the child to rely on, maintain good relations and communication with educational institutions so you will feel comfortable discussing concerns as well as keep all in prayer.
Allah knows best!
Disclaimer: The conceptualization and recommendations stated in this response are very general and purely based on the limited information provided in the question. In no event shall AboutIslam, its counselors or employees be held liable for any damages that may arise from your decision in the use of our services.