On Healing 10/19/2009: Be calm, but vigilant over children’s ‘playing doctor’

Dear Dan,
Today I found my 4-year-old daughter naked from the waist down and a 5-year-old male friend of hers (clothed) together upstairs. I told her to put on her clothes and come downstairs.

I was a little upset, but not angry. She later told me he wanted to play “butt check” and touched her briefly on the bottom/vagina. I told the other mom later, and she said she would try to get more info.

Now I am trying to walk a fine line between gently emphasizing “keep your clothes on” while also trying to see if what happened hurt her. I don’t think she liked the way he touched her, but it doesn’t seem to be a big deal. I think I am more upset than anything.

Should it be a big deal? How can I handle this to ascertain if this really bothered her – or she just didn’t like it because I was upset with her for being naked? How do I handle future play dates with this friend?
– Worried Mother

Dear Worried Mother,

Of course you are upset – I’m sure you weren’t expecting that scene when you opened the bedroom door! And I’ll bet you never thought of your daughter or her friend as sexual beings. Sigmund Freud almost got drummed out of the profession when he asserted that small children, even babies, were sexual.

But they are. You can see infants fondling their genitals and deriving pleasure from it. And you will notice that they do it more when they are tired or distressed. By the time they are 3 or 4 years old, they become curious about the difference between adults’ bodies and children’s bodies, and between boys’ and girls’. They often explore these differences by “playing doctor.” That’s what I did when I was 5 years old and my friend Ellen was 4. We didn’t get caught (oops, not until just now).

So what to do when you discover this going on? You employ rule No. 1 for parenting: “When in doubt, do nothing.” There are a few caveats, but not many. So you’ve already done rule No. 1 – you’ve done nothing and begun to search for more information.

One reason rule No. 1 is so important is that the last thing you want to do is say to these little children, “That’s not appropriate” or “Don’t ever do anything like that again.” Children are curious; that’s how they learn. The last thing you want to do is make them feel ashamed or guilty about their curiosity.

Throughout their lives, you want your children to be comfortable asking you any question they want on any topic they want. You can help foster that level of comfort by finding out what they are curious about and answering their questions honestly and appropriately for their age.

So this is a wonderful opportunity for you to ask your daughter whether she is curious about bodies, and what she wants to know. She might want to know how boys’ and girls’ bodies look different, and why. Answer all her questions, and make sure she understands your answers. And please answer without judgment.

Then perhaps you could talk to her about touching. Ask what it was like when he touched her, whether it felt good or bad or both. This can lead to an important discussion about one’s body and ownership, places that are good for other people to touch and places that are not.

If you find yourself floundering with this, as most parents do, there are lots of good books on sexual development for preschoolers. I often recommend My Body, My Self for Girls by Lynda Madaras and Area Madaras. (They have a boys’ version, too.)

Now, while all the above is true, there are some danger signs to look out for. If the boy is much older than she is or if it happens again, you should be concerned. Our children often mimic what they’ve seen, so keep an eye on what kind of television she is being exposed to. And if something comes up on TV that could be interpreted as erotic, don’t just shut it off and walk away – it is also a good time to talk about what they think and what you think.

If you find that your child’s interest in sexual topics is excessive or there are repeats of playing doctor, then you might want to consult with a mental health professional who specializes in children.

By the way, I reconnected with my childhood playmate Ellen about 10 years ago after not seeing her for nearly 50. I confessed to her that I still felt a little guilty and ashamed about the time we played doctor. She didn’t remember it at all, which cured me of my guilt!

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