Dear Dr. Heather, My 3-year-old son gets upset with his penis gets erect. He says "mommy my pee pee go big." It's like a question/concern/fear all rolled into one statement. He then pulls down his pull-up or underweare (whatever he is wearing) and shows me...no matter who is around. I tell him it is ok and it will go back down. Is this normal, and if so, when does this stop?
At 3 years of age, your son now has an awareness of his body. He also is sensitive to any changes in it, and worries whether the changes mean something is wrong. Children crave consistency, and when things are different -- they can get upset and worried.
Your son is not alone. Most toddlers and preschool-aged boys show an interest in the sensations and changes happening in their penis. (I guess it's an interest that starts in early childhood -- and never goes away!) It's a perfect opportunity to convey the overall message that:
Your body is a good thing; The sensations your body produces are healthy and normal; and It's OK to touch and explore your body -- in private, by yourself.
Talk to your son about his private parts. Use short, simple sentences, and don't try to convey too much at once. "Yes, sometimes your penis gets big like that. Sometimes it is small. But we don't take off our clothes in the living room. You can go look at it in your room, if you want."
Make sure nobody is giving him a negative message about his body; check with sitters, grandparents and others to see if this has "come up" with them, and how they've handled it. You want to make sure he's getting a consistent, positive message.
Of course girls show the same interest in their bodies; check out this post. It also describes the limits of "normal", and when to worry.
It's not too early to begin to send a healthy message to young children about their bodies. Aim for striking a balance; you don't want to instill a sense of shame or negativity about the body. Yet you want them to internalize the sense that their bodies are private and should be respected. It will help them to eventually feel a sense of physical integrity and safety, and to set appropriate boundaries later on.
Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink