Now that school is back in session, your kids are making new friends, reuniting with old ones, and spending more time on play dates. Given the timing, I wanted to share some thoughts on a question that comes up a lot in my parent education workshops: what to do if you find your child "playing doctor" with another child.
Let's start with a hypothetical scenario and range of responses:
You walk into your five-year-old's room and find her and her friend with their clothes off. You...
a) Yell at them to get dressed immediately and send the other child home.
b) Calmly tell them to get dressed and offer milk and cookies in the kitchen.
c) Close the door quietly and let them continue with their play. You bring it up with your child after the friend has gone home.
d) Ask them to get dressed and then show them some books with pictures of different children's bodies.
e) Close the door and immediately call your friend/partner/etc. and ask them how to handle it.
Response A is probably very common but not the most productive. Depending on your own values and comfort levels, responses B - D are all reasonable options. It may seem shocking to find your 3 to 6-year-old or slightly older child engaging in this kind of play, but it's actually a developmentally normal behavior and presents a good opportunity to talk with kids about their bodies. Here are a few key steps to keep in mind.
1. Take a deep breath. Kids are curious about everything in the world around them, including their own bodies. Playing games that involve undressing and exploring a friend or sibling's body is a normal way for children to express this curiosity. You may even remember doing something similar when you were a kid! But that doesn't mean it's easy to see your child engaging in this kind of play. If you do, try to take a deep breath and remember that this is about curiosity, not sexual promiscuity.
2. Disengage and have a conversation. You may want to calmly disrupt the play or wait to talk with your child later. Whether you are disengaging your child or yourself from the immediate situation, what's important is that you do eventually have a conversation. Explain that it is okay to be curious about his or her own and others' bodies, and there are other ways to learn, perhaps by reading together a book designed for exactly this kind of conversation. This may also be a good opportunity to talk about appropriate and inappropriate touching, consent, etc.
3. Talk with the other parent. If you catch your child playing doctor with another child, you should talk with their parent or caregiver. Neither of you are to blame for the behavior and both of you deserve to know what your children are trying to discover themselves. It's a great idea to share resources (like this blog post!) so they can better understand what's going on and how they can talk with their own child about it.
4. Take advantage of resources. As I mentioned above, there are plenty of books out there to help, for example From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children by Debra W. Haffner. You can always reach out to Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts' Education Program to learn more about talking with your child about sex and sexuality or contact your child's pediatrician with your questions and concerns.
Walking in on your child "playing doctor" with a friend can be an unexpected or difficult situation, but remember that it's a great opportunity to help your young child have a healthy relationship with his or her body, learn how to communicate about their feelings, and at the same time, validate that you are an "askable" parent who is willing to answer questions about this topic.
Image credit: PPLM Let's Be Honest Education Program