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The Informed Parent

My Kids Are Playing Doctor! Help!

by Sandra Smith, Ph.D.
Published on Dec. 24, 2007

A recent case study concerned a distressed mom who reported the activities of her 7 and 9-year-old sons. She had discovered them experimenting sexually with their 7-year-old female cousin. She needed guidance for the proper response. Should she punish them, discuss in detail the dangers, scold, or ignore it?

Sexual play is normal, beginning around age 4. Most parents, nonetheless, feel shocked and unsure about what to do when they discover their child or children exploring private parts with another child or children. Remember that children are naturally curious little beings, and they attempt to learn by exploring and comparing. As parents, your goal is to stop the behavior kindly but firmly, avoiding scolding or lecturing. You do not want to cause your child undue embarrassment. Sending the other child home is also unnecessary the first time such behavior occurs--this serves only to create guilt.

Your child is telling you that he is curious. This may be a cue to you--to provide more information, and to discuss appropriate touching and private, personal parts of the body. This is the parents’ opportunity to express their values, and to provide the child with accurate information that will enable him to use sound judgment, and to make good choices about his body.

Some basic guidelines include talk with your child about appropriate and inappropriate touch. Children must be taught to be respectful of the boundaries of others, and similarly assertive about protecting themselves. You, as the parents who intervene, may be very direct about this situation in the presence of both (or all) children who were participating in sexual play. Say, “Sally, Susan, Jason, your body is YOURS and YOU are the boss of it! If you don’t want someone touching you, say so! If you don’t like the way it feels, say so! Even if it is a big person!”

Because curiosity is often the precipitant to sexual play, it is important to explain that injury is a reason for not touching other’s private parts. You can say, “I know you are curious about private parts. But you might hurt your friend by poking, or cause an infection by getting dirt in her vagina.”

Finally, it is usually advisable to discuss the situation with the other parent or parents. Each set of parents needs to discuss their own set of values with their child individually. Ask the other parent’s consent, if your children play together often, to read well-written and illustrated books together to help satisfy their curiosity. To the children, say something like, “Here is a good book that tells all about the body parts you are interested in--when you are curious, tell me and we will read it together.”

Remember that children who play together often may repeat the same act. In that instance, announce the consequences if it occurs again, and then follow through. Deal with the children together. Say, “John and Sally, I am upset to find you with your garments off when you were told that it is not okay. You both made a bad choice. Sally will have to go home immediately. You may try again to play next week.” It is positive to children to know that they will have another chance. Obviously, they should not be left unsupervised if they repeat sexual play consistently.

If sexual play recurs despite all of your informed parent interventions, or seems excessive to you, you may want to discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician, a mental health professional, or a school counselor. Excessive sexual play, at any age, is often a sign of an underlying problem.

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