Preschoolers Having ‘Oral Sex’?!

That’s what happened in California, according to a new lawsuit. Lizzie Crocker talks to experts about what the long-term effects on the kids could be.

It’s the kind of scenario that makes every parent cringe: a California preschool is shutting down as allegations surface that two 5-year-old girls were performing fellatio on fellow classmates while teachers turned a blind eye.

On Tuesday, attorney Greg Owen filed a legal complaint against the First Lutheran Church of Carson School on behalf of one of six children involved in the disturbing alleged incidents, claiming negligence and “intentional infliction of emotional stress.” According to Owen, “sexual encounters” between the 4- and 5-year-old tots were initiated by a 5-year-old girl in June and again in September. It wasn’t until October, when another girl of the same age was caught by a teacher with her mouth on a 4-year-old boy’s genitals that the Carson School “dealt with the incident internally,” according to a school spokesperson.

Administrators initially denied the incident had anything to do with closing, but the state’s social-services department cited supervision “deficiencies” in an evaluation of the preschool on Thursday.

Carson will effectively close its doors on Friday, leaving a community outraged and cuing a media firestorm over a preschool “oral-sex scandal.” Parents, teachers, and anyone following the story are all looking for someone to blame. Where were the teachers when the kids were fumbling around during naptime, behind the slide on the playground, and in the bathroom? How did the girl who introduced the idea to her peers become so sexualized in the first place?

It’s understandable for adults to be distraught over the thought of preschool-age kids engaging in fellatio, especially in a society that projects adult sexuality onto children. To be sure, it’s difficult to predict how any one child will process such an event, and experts caution against blanket proscriptions. But when it comes to the kids’ well-being, the collective parent-teacher freakout certainly won’t help, experts in child development say.

“You don’t want to put the idea in the child’s mind that this is something terrible,” says Dr. David Elkind, a renowned child psychologist not involved with the case.

Some adults chastise young children for playing doctor, masturbating, or occasionally exposing themselves to their peers. But most of us know that kids will be kids and a “that isn’t appropriate in public” talk will nip problematic behaviors in the bud. Admit it, you’ve either witnessed a child doing these things or you were in fact that girl who hogged the seesaw and dry humped your teddy bear.

Mouth-to-genital contact, however, is not normal among preschoolers. Did the kids at the Carson School know that? Probably not.

“Children at this age don’t comprehend what they’re doing, except that they’re playing with private parts that they’ve been told to keep private,” says Elkind. “As long as they don’t see it as traumatic, it’s unlikely that they would have lifelong side effects.”

Problems can arise, though, when adults sexualize the activity, thrusting their own preconceived notions or anxieties on the children. Parents’ strong reactions may lead to “overdramatizing everything in the child’s mind,” according to Elkind.

The father of one of the children who allegedly received oral sex from a girl in the bathroom, voiced his anger over the incident when he broke the story to ABC News. “He told me about all the bad things that girl had been doing to him,” the dad said. “I just had to keep yelling in his ear, ‘You’re not in trouble, you’re not in trouble!’ And I just told him, ‘You’re never coming back here again for these people to do this to you.’”

He added: “There’s no way I can just take him to another school and be that parent that just lets a predator loose. How else do you explain it?”

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An overly emotional reaction from figures of authority can exacerbate negative feelings in children, says Kathy Seifert, a forensic psychologist who specializes in family trauma but who has not been involved in the California case. “That kind of behavior just compounds the emotion that the child may be having, leading them to think they might have done something wrong. The young girl who started it was probably copying what she saw or what was done to her, which is an entirely different issue.”

But that issue has already been pursued and dropped. The County of Los Angeles Department of Child and Family Services interviewed each of the families involved and found no evidence of abuse.

So the families have all teamed up against the school, which—according to an email from the deacon of the church affiliated with the school to other church members—tried in vain to cover up the rampant horseplay to avoid being shut down:

“Hi my sisters in Christ ... this is real news ... the pre school [sic] is shutting its doors on Friday, Feb 1st. The reason behind this is hold on to your seats. A little girl was moslesting [sic] a little boy ... giving him head ... giving it like a pro … It just didn't happen once but three times that's when a teacher reported to the state ... The teachers are losing their jobs, the monies [sic] owed to the parents and staff wow, not to mention law suits [sic].”

The church deacon’s description of the incident, embedded in court documents, is far more appalling than what was actually going on between the students. Surely the church community would not be pleased to hear the deacon likening a 5-year-old girl to a prostitute.

One has to wonder how all this hullabaloo will affect the kids in the long run. We all know childhood scars run deep, but it’s hard to say whether these kids will have an unhealthy attitude toward sexuality later in life. “Adults feel empathically that this is a huge issue for kids, but that may not be the case,” says Elkind. “The best thing to do is watch for distress signals and, if they do pop up, address them with a professional.”

But if parents make a big deal of the issue, it could cause the children to feel shame and embarrassment. Worse, it might make them hesitant to speak openly if they ever find themselves in an uncomfortable situation again—particularly with an elder.

And let’s face it: that scenario is a lot uglier than a group of preschoolers experimenting with each other.