Ages 3 to 6 mark the phallic stage
of psychosexual development, when children experience heightened interest in their genitals. Freud speculated that near the end of the phallic stage, children are erotically attracted to the opposite‐gender parent. In response to internal mental conflicts that arise because of this attraction, children identify with the same‐gender parent at the resolution of the Oedipal Complex (boys) or Electra Complex (girls).
Most children masturbate at some point during the phallic stage. Parents may keep in mind that masturbation is widespread among children. No scientific evidence supports the position that masturbation is harmful in any way, with the exception of guilt and other negative emotions arising from others' reactions. Although parents may be shocked to learn that their children masturbate, vigorously prohibiting the practice may be psychologically damaging to the children over time. Instead, parents should help their children learn more about the socially appropriate use of their genitals.
Besides a growing interest in their own bodies, preschoolers become curious about the bodies of their siblings and playmates, especially boy‐girl differences. That girls do not have a penis and boys do is of intense concern. This curiosity may lead to endless questions, as well as any of a number of peeking and doctor games, touching and exploration with peers, and watching one another urinate. Parents should understand that these normal activities are to be expected when done with same‐age children and in moderation. Parents should also remain alert to the possibility of older siblings and children sexually exploiting younger children.
No evidence suggests that sexplay with same‐gender children causes homosexuality, or that sexplay with peers leads to early sexual intercourse. Setting limits in nonpunitive and noncritical ways minimizes the possibility that the child will become confused, develop guilt, or later experience sexual problems.
Parents' expressions of affection influence their children's conceptions of love, because children's primary role models are their parents. How children eventually conceptualize and express love and affection is traceable back to their observations of their parents. And parents want to help their children become well‐balanced, content, and fully functioning adults. Children's views of loving relationships and sex—positive or negative—are normally a reflection of the quality of love and affection expressed by the parents to each other and their children. Children who never witness love at home may find it impossible to feel or demonstrate love as adults.