Ah, the wandering hand problem.
One of my favorite parts of the movie “Little Man Tate” is where the television make-up lady tells Fred, “You’re going on TV, darlin’. Millions of people are going to be watching you. So that means: no burping, no farting… and no playing with Mr. Peabody. Ok?”
The Mr. Peabody problem can be a tricky problem to deal with. On one hand, you don’t want to shame the child or overreact by punishing them. On the other hand, it is one of those behaviors which is simply not appropriate in public. Little boys especially have to be taught to stay away from that area, whether it is adjusting, holding, grabbing, or otherwise playing in that region. How to do this with taste and tact?
For the average little boy, I would start with simple instruction and discrete pull of the hand away. We have three boys under the age of five and I tell them simply (with no shaming), “Don’t hold yourself honey.” They usually remember but sometimes need a reminder. And sometimes they have to go to the bathroom, which warrants a question rather than correction. But they don’t go inside the pants or routinely forget. If they did, I might resort to flicking or gently batting their hand or a firmer correction (“Not inside the pants, Johnny.”) to help them internalize and remind them that others can see them. (Sometimes little kids forget that other people actually can see them doing the wrong thing.) If you feel bad about this, remember that it’s ok to let them examine themselves in the privacy of the tub or at toilet time, if necessary, when it’s appropriate. It’s their body.
For real fidgeters, put something else in their hands. Things like a string or rubber band which they can flex and wrap around their fingers sometimes takes the business out.
Generally some consistency in this area is all it takes. Children will soon realize that their behavior is not admonished in private, and that if they are curious, they should keep it to themselves. You can have a light-hearted discussion about it if you’re still concerned. But keep in mind that the season of toilet-training and learning about their bodies in school or on TV is something that is brief and exciting to the average three- and four-year old, so it is normal that they’d be more curious at this stage than at another. Five year olds generally start outgrowing the desire to walk around naked, lift up their shirts to examine their belly-buttons, and all that silly body behavior so common to toddlers and preschoolers. They usually get a sense of custom by that point and resort to sneaky body things that make them laugh like burping and farting noises 🙂
For a special needs child who is habitually touching themselves, however, it is probably necessary to go one step further. I know it is not politically correct, but I would probably resort to a small discrete pinch on the hand, perhaps accompanied by a gentle “Not now, honey.” Definitely a time for more intense training at home. The problem with a special needs child is that they are probably not able to remember your instruction or understand why it is not appropriate for them to do this. (Public/Private is a difficult concept for any child.) But they are damaging their own dignity if they have a problem containing themselves in public, and this is an important concern in the life of a special needs mom. They may have wandering hands if they are insular, like in the case of an autistic or extremely retarded child. Or they may be bored and just trying to stimulate themselves. (Regular kids can have this problem too–put something else in their hands.) But some special needs children need a gut-level motivation to break this habit, and sometimes a physical incentive is the best, quickest teacher. If this seems inhumane, remember it is actually in the child’s best interest to learn this lesson quickly and lastlingly; it does not behoove their mainstreaming to have them continually touching themselves. Use your discretion obviously, but I guess I am saying that appealing to emotional, moral, or cognitive norms (through teaching, explaining, incentives/punishments) is probably not the best route for this child. It might cause frustration for you, embarrassment for others, and undue emotional stress on their part. Keep the training gentle, discrete, and simple.
Also remember that a certain amount of stimulation is normal, but a lot of frequency or intensity is not. Children touch themselves because they’ve found “the feel good” spot, and that is normal to learn. But sometimes a child who is really struggling in this area is giving you a red flag. They may be showing signs of sexual abuse, neglect, or extreme stress. Especially in girls (I hate to say it), this is more likely to be the case. And especially if you are a teacher/daycare worker and you notice other red flags like dirty clothes, forgotten lunch/homework, sullenness, emotional or behavior problems, or rejection by peers. Definitely take this into account and notify a counselor. In slightly older boys (elementary school age), this can be the sign of sexual activity or early exposure to pornography. Definitely notify someone else in that case too.