Dear David Coleman: My four-year-old seems to have a fascination with both his grannies' feet... is this normal?
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Q. My four-year-old boy is a happy child. However, he has an odd habit of taking off his grannies' shoes and socks, putting their feet on his lap and/or up under his jumper to touch his tummy and rubbing their feet. He has always done this in a secretive manner, placing a blanket over himself while doing it. Both grandmothers are happy for him to play with their feet. But, this week I noticed that when he came out from under the blanket he had an erection visible through his trousers. Is this a normal activity for a kid of his age to do?
David replies: I think you are right that your son has an "odd habit". That is not to say that enjoying the feel, or touch, of someone's feet is not normal. However, I haven't come across this particular kind of preferred sensory stimulation in such a young child before.
His liking of his grannies' feet is unusual, but not necessarily problematic. Indeed, part of what is unusual is that he seems to only like touching both his grandmothers' feet, but not anyone else's. It is also surprising that both of his grandmothers have assented to him taking off their shoes and socks and touching their feet.
It is also a bit odd that your son likes to touch their feet in "secret". It is as if he is embarrassed by what he does, or has some sense that other people would think it odd if they saw what he was doing.
The fact that he got an erection, apparently while touching the foot of one of his grannies, may or may not be significant. Perhaps the physical sensation he gets from rubbing their feet, either with his hand, or against his tummy, was sexually stimulating, but maybe it was just coincidence too. Sexual arousal in response to feet is generally termed a foot fetish.
It is possible that your son may develop a foot fetish as he gets older. This is more likely to happen if he keeps getting erections while touching his grannies' feet. Even though he may not be very consciously aware of the sexual nature of his erection, he is probably finding his erections to be very physically pleasurable.
Naturally, the association of a sexual sensory pleasure, with whatever other sensory pleasure he gets from the feel of his grannies' feet, could be very reinforcing for him and he will, most likely, be motivated to continue to touch and rub their feet.
As with any other physically stimulating behaviour that children engage in (for example, other children like to touch their own genitals, or develop habits of "rocking" or "grinding"), we may need to either divert them entirely from the behaviour, or remind them to keep the behaviour private so that it doesn't lead to their own humiliation or others' embarrassment.
You need to decide if you are happy with your son to continue his foot rubbing, or if you'd like to encourage him to stop. Stopping will involve collaboration with your mum and your partner's mum.
I do think that if your son is prevented, entirely, from the foot rubbing, by having no access to his grannies' feet, that he will soon lose interest in it as a form of physical or sensory stimulation (sexual or otherwise).
His grannies need to agree that they will simply say "no" warmly and kindly, but firmly, to him, every time he asks to rub their feet, or every time he tries to remove their shoes.
If they are prepared to do that, then I think you will find that, with the lack of opportunity, his interest will dwindle over time. Before it reduces, however, you will probably notice a short-lived increase in his intensity and frequency of seeking to touch their feet, as he seeks to re-establish the old habits he had.
His grannies need to be really consistent with saying "no", even if he becomes more persistent for a while, such that he learns that he just won't be allowed to touch their feet. They also need to be kind about saying "no".
They may choose to offer him a more socially acceptable form of physical contact, such as a hug, a cuddle or just holding hands. As time passes, I think you will see his interest in their feet fade away.
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