Recently, I responded to a question posed by a mother whose seven-year-old son had gotten into the habit of pulling his pants down and showing his privates to his friends, including little girls his age. This mother shared that she and her husband had tried everything to get him to stop, from grounding the child to spanking him bare bottom whenever the behavior was executed, all to no avail. This poor mum seemed to be at her wits’ end in not knowing how to deal with this situation.
So how does a parent respond when their child is engaging in embarrassing behaviors? With this question, there were so many issues I felt needed to be addressed. First, the child seemed to be showing signs of a need to be educated on gender and sex differences; secondly, the behavior aside, this seemed to be a child who had grown accustomed to getting away with being unruly; and thirdly, his parents seemed to be understandably worried about how they would be perceived by others, rather than focusing on the developmental needs of the child. The rest of this article addresses my response to the mother’s question.
Dear Frustrated Mom,
Sounds like your son has questions about sex, perhaps more specifically gender differences between him and his peers. I wonder if this is the only unruly behavior he shows. For example, does he like to fart around others, burp or pick his nose and show off its contents? If so, what are you and partner’s typical responses? These days, thanks to the mass media, people are more conscientious about the prevalence of child abuse, but unfortunately this newfound awareness has also led to a spike in innocent parents being suspected over the unruly but innocent actions of a child. I could be wrong, but I suspect that a primary reason you and your partner want this behavior to end is possibly because you are both worried that it might reflect negatively on you both as parents.
This is understandable, but please be aware that all behaviors children display are on a continuum, and while his behavior is unacceptable, it is possibly a continuum of other unruly behaviors which you and your partner might not find to be that big of a deal.
In regards to how you get this behavior to stop, I would suggest a triple strategy approach. This consists of positive reinforcement, consistent discipline, and sex talk appropriate for a seven-year-old.
Positive reinforcement will be to shower your son on a consistent basis, every time he doesn’t expose his privates to you or anybody. Get on one knee, look him in his eyes and share with him how proud you are that he was able to respect himself and the other person for not flashing his privates. This one will be challenging as you will have to remember every time you have an interaction with your son or you witness him have an interaction with someone else.
Consistent discipline; besides the severity of the “no-no” society places on people flashing their privates to others, there are other no-no’s which are not as severe but run along the continuum leading to the flashing of one’s privates. These are the behaviors you want to target in order to exercise consistent discipline. So when your son flashes his privates and you explain to him that he is not being mindful of others through his behavior, you also want to target other behaviors which would warrant this same explanation, i.e., farting, burping, nose picking, and the list goes on. Specifically regarding what sort of discipline should be exercised, I would discourage spanking—it’s not effective. Instead, along with grounding, I would take a favorite toy and give it away every time any of the offensive behaviors on the continuum occurs. It is important that you don’t turn around in a few days and replace the toy when he starts complying; instead give it a few months for replacement.
The combination of positive reinforcement and consistent discipline, a hundred percent of the time, will prove very effective. I would also enlist his teachers in helping you in the process, so he is not getting away with the behavior outside the home. I would encourage that you and your partner try this technique for at least forty-five consecutive days, even after the behavior has stopped; you both could always go longer.
Thirdly, I would have a sex talk with your son, but make it appropriate for the ears of a seven-year-old. I would encourage you to talk about why it is important for people to not walk around exposing their privates in public, I would talk about physical differences between boys and girls, and more importantly I would encourage teaching him about good touch and bad touch from others.
Good luck and I hope this helps.
Ugo Uche is a Licensed Professional Counselor with the State of Arizona.