Responding to ‘Playing Doctor’
It’s common for our children to surprise us with how fast they are growing. As a child I always looked forward to the packages that arrived seasonally from my year-older cousins, full of wonderful clothes just ready for me. My mother packed up similar boxes for my younger cousins, greeted with equal enthusiasm, I’m sure.
Our kids slip through sexual development stages, too, not so easily marked by tight shoes and tee shirts that no longer cover our tummies. We sometimes miss them, too, because we ignore them, embarrassed by the topic of sexuality in general and particularly by the subject of our children’s sexuality. Understandable enough, but this can leave us caught off guard and unprepared for the inevitable situations when we must respond to our kids growing up.
Just the other day I got a call from Jane, a young mother of two unsure of how to deal with something that had just happened. A couple of neighbourhood children were over for a play date, and while the six-year-olds played in the rec room and the baby napped, she was preparing snacks.
When she heard the baby fussing, she went to attend to him and passed the rec room door. She thought she saw her six-year-old hopping off a table and rearranging her clothes, but she wasn’t sure. Jane was ripping down the hallway to a crying baby and hadn’t really been paying attention. What had she really seen?
When she had gotten the baby, she entered the rec room. The kids were playing house as usual and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Still…
Jane called me immediately.
“They’re only six!,” she cried. “I didn’t punish them because I wasn’t sure, but surely I should do something. Should I forbid those children from coming over again? What should I say to my daughter?”
Jane’s reaction was typical. She was surprised to find her youngster expressing sexual curiosity and suspected that this exploration should be stifled.
I asked Jane what happened when she was caught playing doctor as a child. She asked how I knew that had happened and I chuckled, responding that almost everyone plays that game, and most are caught. I went on to explain that at around five or six, children reach a maturational age when they become intensely curious about all sorts of scientific things, their bodies included. They are at this stage aware of the differences between males and females, but are mightily confused about those differences. And they want to know!
If your children live in a home where nudity is not the norm, or where they lack the opportunity to interact with opposite gender siblings during bath time and dressing, they will find ways to satisfy their curiosity about how boys’ and girls’ bodies differ. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” is one effective method of getting an answer. Playing doctor is another.
These kids are not perverse—they’re curious. Their motivation in what we consider their sex play is not sexual in adult terms. They want to see and possibly touch, but their aim is to learn the similarities and differences in their anatomies. They may well have discovered the pleasure of masturbation—and wonder how good someone else’s body feels—but their behaviours are fueled by curiosity rather than the emotional crushes that blossom years later.
How should you handle the situation?
Not by punishing, not by isolating. If you happen into a room with a group of children playing doctor, be assured that the activity will stop immediately of its own accord. Be graceful. Apologize for interrupting and back out swiftly, as though you had seen nothing. Those kids will want to believe you missed it.
But that’s not all. Your job has just begun. This is your cue that your child (and the other children) has reached the maturational threshold to want and need accurate information about how their bodies are constructed and changing. Let the other parents know what happened in a positive, matter-of-fact way.
Inform yourself and then inform your child. Get books geared to their level and teach them respect and pride in their bodies. Yes, you may be a little embarrassed at first. It passes.
If for no other reason, do this to abuse-proof your kids. That’s right, children who know proper names for their body parts, and who feel pride and ownership over their bodies, are poor targets for predators. If your children know they can talk to you about sex from early on, they will.
“I’m glad I called,” sighed Jane. “This feels much better than how I might have handled this.”
“Don’t lose my number,” I laughed, “There are lots more stages ahead!”