Written by Doctor G

Playing House, Playing Doctor – Teaching Boundaries

My 10 year old niece was playing “family” with two neighborhood girls ages 8 and 5. At one point my niece took the 5 year old to the bathroom to “pretend” to use the restroom. My sister informed the girls’ mom about the incident. My sister doesn’t know what to tell her daughter. Did she do something wrong?

Anonymous, in PA

There is no way to know for sure what happened in that bathroom.

It sounds like, so far, your sister has done everything right. Chances are high that nothing socially unacceptable happened at all, but the best way to find out is to ask.

To start the conversation, your sister can use open-ended questions, meaning questions that can be answered with more than yes or no.

“Will you tell me the story you created with your game?”

“What happens during Family when the mom takes the girl to the bathroom?”

If your niece already understands that something about her game made people nervous, she may be scared to answer these questions. That is a normal reaction – by both your sister and your niece. So then your sister could start with:

“What feelings do you have about the game you played with our neighbors?”

“How did you feel about my reaction to your game?” “Why do you think I reacted that way?”

It may be that your sister doesn’t feel she can decide if the play was “OK” or not, and it is always a safe choice to ask a child psychologist to help figure that out. Clearly something about this triggered a concern in your sister, so she needs to figure out why.

As always, if a child touches a younger child in a private place, the parent must address three issues:

  1. Has the older child been exposed to sexual abuse or inappropriate touching?
  2. Does the child understand how to have imaginary play without crossing our societal boundaries?
  3. Does the younger child’s parent know all the details of the situation?

In this case, as I said, it is very likely that your niece played safely and well with her neighbors. Your sister was very open with the younger girls’ mom right away, which is admirable. And the concern may be totally unfounded. The stand up thing to do is to find out, and then do what comes next.

Whatever the answer, it is important to talk early and often to kids about body privacy – their own, and others.


What do you do when your child plays pretend and you’re not sure what went on?



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