A mom of a 3-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy recently asked me if we could about how to have age-appropriate conversations with her kids about “healthy sexuality” and their body parts. As we talked, she bravely confided in me that as she was working on dinner in the kitchen that she noticed that her children, who had been playing in the other room, had grown suspiciously quiet. When she rounded the corner of her kitchen into the family room, they weren’t there. She headed down the hallway only to be greeted by the closed door of her son’s bedroom. When she opened it, her son yelled “stop” and she discovered that her children were no longer wearing any clothes. When she asked what they were doing, her son said that they were playing “doctor”. This mom was understandably a little upset and embarrassed about the situation, and she hadn’t quite known what to do.
As a parent, this is a situation that is fairly common among kids (I mean, we’ve all probably either experienced this or heard about this, haven’t we?). In the vast majority of situations where kids are “exploring” in this way, their exploration is based out of a normal level curiosity and doesn’t stem out of some type of “problem” or “perversion”.
If and when you encounter this situation:
- Take a few deep breaths and try not to further embarrass or shame your children. Remember not to overreact.
- Ask your son/daughter what they mean when they say they are playing “doctor”.
- Ask your son/daughter where they learned how to play “doctor”. (And consider talking to the parent of the boy/girl that they learned from).
- Ask your son/daughter (in a non-threatening way) exactly what they were doing (try not to ask leading questions, rather, ask: What sort of ‘doctor tools’ were you using? Where were you touching? Why there? Etc.)
- Use the opportunity name body parts and point out the differences between the boy and the girl.
- Explain that going forward, it is not appropriate to ask someone else to take off their clothes.
- Explain that it’s never OK to touch somebody else’s private parts (Consider books like “My Body is Private” and “It’s MY body” to read to them).
- Tell them that going forward, they shouldn’t play “Doctor”.
In the example above, the son closed the door and didn’t want his mom to come in, which complicates the situation a bit. Likely, the child who first showed him how to play “doctor” also closed the door. Explain that he/she should never close the door when they play together. Also watch out for warning signs that your son/daughter has been exposed to pornographic material or has experienced some type of child sex abuse… in escalated situations of sexual interactions among youth, there are usually only two possibilities: exposure or abuse. If your son or daughter are trying to insert objects into another child or are acting out beyond self-exploration, they could be acting out something that they have seen or experienced (check out this blog on protecting your kids from child sexual abuse). Remember to always use filters on your computer (like X3watch PRO or SafeEyes) and be bold: talk to other parents about the software they are using on their connected devices. If they aren’t using filters on their computers, your kids are at risk of exposure to hard-core pornography (even young children are at great risk!). For more about talking to your kids about sex, see our parent resources.