Toddlers do it too

It's every parent's most embarrassing prospect - toddlers experimenting with sex. But it is almost always inevitable.

"Ages of knowing about sensuality and sexuality are becoming younger and younger," says child psychologist Ian de Bruin.

And though it is well-known that children as young as four can experiment with adults' games, the discovery is usually so shocking to the parent that the reaction is either to pretend that nothing happened and hope that it won't happen again, or to play the blame game.

"When I caught my little girl pulling up her panties in the company of my friends' naughty boy I wanted to die," says Lungile Mabanga, a working mother.

"I thought of spanking them but realised my reaction would heighten interest in the activity. So I reprimanded them very harshly, but I wished I could have spanked the boy."

She is not alone. Girls' parents are often angered by factors like the Aids scourge and the virginity issue, but Andrew Nel, a gynaecologist, says that, medically speaking, virginity and when its is lost can be determined only after puberty.

He uses this reasoning to explain the dismissal of "rape" cases involving toddlers.

Because child- on-child rape is such a complex matter, the Sex Offenders' Bill remains in the grinder because, when it wasproposed in 2003, many organisations were outraged by it.

Members of the public and opposition political parties were appalled by the draft because it made it okay for children between the ages of 12 and 16 to experiment sexually with other children in the same age bracket. Amendments to the bill are being made.

"I don't care if that bill lets my girl experiment with her brother or a younger boy with a penis as small as a sewing needle. Sex between children should be condemned," says Percy Headbush, a father of three.

But parents must not allow themselves to be so emotional, warns De Bruin.

"By nature, children are more inclined to long to do what they are prohibited from doing, especially if it gets on the parents' nerves."

Here are coping suggestions from

l Try to react calmly. Overreacting or forbidding children from experimenting could make them do it even more, and there's no need for them to feel like criminals.

l Give them something else to do. If the time or place is inappropriate, distract them. Suggest a favourite CD or snuggling with them.

l Talk about privacy. Four-year-olds are a little young to fully grasp the concept or the magnitude of their actions, but you can tell them that what they are doing should only be done by adults.

l Trust your instincts. If it seems like your child is experimenting a lot, talk to your paediatrician. Something might be making him stressed.