Why do kids hump things? Well, a straight question like this deserves a straight answer, so here it is : Because it feels good!
Many little kids discover that it feels good when they rub their private parts either with their hands or against things. I remember my little brother telling me about the strange feeling he got when he was climbing a tree and his penis rubbed up against the trunk. It was completely innocent. It’s also normal for children who have experienced this kind of feeling to show curiosity about one another’s bodies and want to look or touch.
With most kids, this kind of behaviour is a normal, innocent exploration of good bodily feelings, which will develop later into the capacity for sexual pleasure. It is very important for us adults not to make them feel guilty for this. If sexual feelings become associated with shame, and sex becomes “dirty,” then kids will think of it as something illicit which has to be explored behind others’ backs, rather than something good which can eventually be shared with a person you love.
If you find a child “humping” or rubbing himself, just tell him that these kinds of body feelings are private, and suggest he do it in his room rather than in public with other people around. That’s enough. If he’s doing it in a situation where there aren’t others around, like watching TV at home, and you see him, I suggest you ignore it. If you find two or more children exploring their bodies together, this is the time for a little talk about “private parts” and what “private” means, without shaming them. You might want to get a book about bodies and read it to the children. My favourite is “A Very Touching Book,” which not only names and displays all the body parts in a humorous manner but also talks about good touch, bad touch, and secret touch.
Now, there’s a difference between this innocent exploration of body feelings, and the behaviour of a child who has been sexually abused. Sexually abused children often act out with other children in ways which imitate what has been done to them. This goes beyond just “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” If you see children mimicking oral sex, for example, this deserves further investigation, as the idea of oral sex doesn’t occur to them spontaneously. This suggests that some adult may have done this to them. Similarly if a child corners another child and forces them into sexual play which the other child doesn’t really want. An adult needs to ask each child individually and kindly about their experiences both with one another and previously. Remember that sexual abusers often make threats about bad things which will happen if the child discloses, so be sure to be gentle and emphasize that you are able to keep the child safe from anything he’s afraid of. “A Very Touching Book” can help here too.
There’s an in-between situation in which a child has observed sexual behaviour which she doesn’t understand, either in person or on TV, and is imitating what she has seen. I remember a little girl I saw at Mental Health who was imitating sexual intercourse with her dolls. Everyone was very concerned that she might have been sexually abused, even though she did not appear emotionally disturbed. In the play therapy room, I casually asked her whether she’d seen anyone do this, and she said “Oh yes, when the babysitter’s boyfriend comes over.” That was of course inappropriate, but it was not abuse directed at the child.
Television and the Internet now give children the opportunity to view all kinds of sexual behaviour which they are not ready to understand. My computer pops up ads for all kinds of sexual perversities. A “net nanny” is a good idea if your child is old enough to use the Internet. And it’s also a good idea to monitor what TV shows your child watches. It’s not that children should be kept away from awareness of all adult sexual behaviour, only that so much of what the media show is promiscuous, provocative, and perverted. As much as possible we want our children’s exposure to sexuality to be healthy and in the context of loving relationships. There is a time when we need to let them watch the other stuff, but only after they have had an opportunity to develop positive values in the area of sexuality.