My son is turning 3 years old and lately I been noticing he is playing/holding his penis, which I am really concerned about. His hand just wonders off to his willy, I have asked him what's wrong but he says nothing.

He had been sleeping with his uncles who are in their late teens, but I changed that as well to make him sleep in our room, as my room is small I manage to sleep on floor because I am concerned.

The reason I am concerned, I was molested as a teen, and as a person who has been through a painful teenage experience and later on too, I see this from a different angle.

My wife says I'm too concerned, at his age they are not sure about that part of their body so they touch it to explore, but I am worried.

Is this normal male child behavior? Is there anything to do about it?

3 Answers 3


Although it is always wise to be cautious about the safety of your young child, in general it is developmentally normal and natural (and not at all sexual in the adult sense) for a three year old to touch or play with his private parts. It's generally a matter of curiosity, and perhaps increased access if he is recently out of diapers. Adult strong reactions to the behavior can reinforce it, as the child thinks, "There is something about doing this that attracts concern/interest from mom and dad!", which may make it extra interesting to do and watch how you respond.

A common way to deal with this behavior in a healthy way is to frame it as a matter of privacy, "It's okay to touch your private parts in private places, like in the bath; We don't touch our private parts in places like the dinner table or while visiting with relatives." You don't want to introduce a sense of shame; there is nothing wrong with a child engaging in this totally normal age-related behavior, but at 3 a child can begin to learn about boundaries and the appropriate time and place for doing things.

If, on the other hand, your child is showing other troubling signs, like overly sexual play with other children, sudden behavior regressions (like a loss of potty training), sudden excessive fearfulness or separation anxiety, or excessive knowledge of sexual topics, or tells you that they have been harmed by another person, then you should pursue the matter with professionals immediately.

  • 21
    I swear, one of my children held on to his penis for about a year (as if he thought it might suddenly fly away!) It's a very normal phase; I'm certain he experienced nothing untoward. We just learned to ignore/accept it. I don't know what made him stop; he just did, as suddenly as it started. Nov 16, 2019 at 4:05
  • 1
    Note that most of these other "troubling signs" can be the result of bipolar disorder-induced hypersexuality, not necessarily child abuse. If you see these signs, be careful to ensure that you don't jump to potentially life-destroying conclusions.
    – forest
    Nov 18, 2019 at 4:31
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    @forest that's why he ends with "then you should pursue the matter with professionals immediately.", the professional (prob a shrink) will determine the origin of the behavior
    – J_rite
    Nov 18, 2019 at 8:38
  • Updates, he had been playing with his willy a lot and last night my wife told me his willy was out of his PJ's while he was sleeping. This has rang bell of concern for us. should I post a question of it's own?
    – localhost
    May 1, 2020 at 5:38
  • @Nofel It could probably be it's own question, but if you are truly concerned that your son has been molested, you should probably follow up on that, perhaps starting with a call to your son's doctor. (I don't personally feel like the willy out of his pjs on a child that as you say, plays with it a lot, is a smoking gun, but I also don't discount your parental instincts.)
    – Meg
    May 1, 2020 at 13:51

A young child touching their privates is normal behavior.

This paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that children become increasingly sexual up to age 5

It goes on to state that self stimulating behavior such as touching privates while at home is observed in 60.2% of 2-5 year olds.

Below are some of the most common signs of sexual abuse:

  • Sexual behavior that is inappropriate for the child’s age.
  • Not wanting to be left alone with certain people.
  • Tries to avoid removing clothing to change or bathe.
  • Excessive talk about or knowledge of sexual topics.
  • Resuming behaviors that they had grown out of, such as thumb-sucking.

It goes without saying that this list is far from comprehensive. If you have been given no reason to believe that your child has been abused such as those listed above then you should treat this as normal behavior that he will grow out of as he comes to understand his body. You can be supportive by teaching him the right time right place for this kind of touching.

With my own children, I want them to understand the importance of bodily autonomy. For instance, when I bathe them, I ask them if they are okay for me to wash their privates. I explain to them that only they are allowed to touch their private area anyone else must first have their permission. I explain the kinds of situations that are appropriate as well and frame the question like this: "Who else is allowed to touch your privates?"

  • Mommy and Daddy when they are giving me a bath.
  • At the doctors when getting a check up.

I have also told them to come to me immediately if somebody else is trying to make them do something that they don't like. I remind them: "Mommy and Daddy will never be mad at you for telling us. We love you and want to take care of you." I feel like this is important because I have heard stories of abusers manipulating children by saying something like: "If you tell your parents, they will be so mad, or they won't love you anymore, or they will leave you." Its your job as a parent to show your children how to set healthy boundaries and its very important to create that safe space that's built on trust and understanding so that they feel comfortable coming to you to share their problems and concerns.

By your post it seems like you really want what is best for your child. I wish you the best of luck!


I am the oldest of 5 children. My brother, the youngest, is 12 years younger than me, and uncircumcised.

Children learn the rules of hygiene from their parents and then tend to pass them obsessively to their younger siblings. My brother was constantly told not to play with his private parts by his four older siblings.

Possibly as a result of this, when my brother was about 9, the doctor told my mother his foreskin was too tight! The doctor actually suggested that my mother manipulate his foreskin! She was uncomfortable with this, and it was agreed that my brother would manipulate his own private parts to loosen his foreskin.

In conclusion, children playing with their private parts is not only normal but may in fact be necessary for normal physical development.

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