Written by Doctor G

Protect Your Child from the Lifelong Consequences of Playing Doctor

Dr. G,
When should I be concerned about “playing doctor?”

David, in Indiana

You know, David, up until last week I would have read this question to mean “When should I be worried that my child is acting inappropriately when he or she “plays doctor?” Now, given the nearly unbelievable controversy in Wisconsin, I understand your question to also mean “When should I worry that my child’s developmentally normal sexual explorations could get him prosecuted in court and labeled as a sex offender as soon as he turns 18 (based on his behavior now)?”

I will leave (almost entirely) alone my horror at the steps taken in the Wisconsin case. Suffice that to say the parents of the little girl in question must feel completely disempowered and without community if they genuinely felt that the court system was the only way to protect their five year old from this six year old.

Here is my answer to both of your (possible) questions. Break any cultural stereotype you may have about The Sex Talk. This is NOT one event. In developmentally appropriate ways, there are dozens of opportunities to help preschoolers learn what is interesting, what is allowed and not, regarding our own and other peoples’ bodies.

Start at your first chance. When your toddler notices a difference between boy bodies and girl bodies get into conversation. Boy bodies have penises, girl bodies have vaginas. Anything that is covered when a person wears a bathing suit is off-limits to touching on anyone else or by anyone else unless your parent is with you and allows it (the doctor/nurse loophole).

Sexual interest has its first peak between age 3 and 6. Masturbation, exploration and questions are a normal part of development. The more your child gets simple, clear and respectful answers at home, the less they will search for these answers elsewhere. Make your expectations about this clear.

If your family allows innocent exploration of a parent’s private areas make sure your child learns to “knock first;” he or she must ask permission every time before touching. The skill of asking first before any kind of touching or kissing (even hugging) is a great lesson for kids. Imagine a world in which teenagers always ask permission before touching someone else in a romantic way? It is much harder (though not impossible) to cry foul if you gave consent beforehand. Even if you allow a preschooler to touch mom’s breast or ask questions about parents’ genitals, discourage this kind of exploration of siblings – it is too likely that this exploration will recur when you’re not watching and then the boundaries could be crossed.

Talk about sexual and body issues early and often. Talk about this case with your kids – even your kindergarten kids. You don’t have to tell them about this boy’s nightmares of going to jail. You can, however, explain that not every family talks about this as freely as yours and that is why their curiosity and questions about bodies should be answered at home, not with friends.

So David, I say this. You have to talk to your child about “playing doctor” and keep the values you want to impart in mind. We can’t protect our kids from everything crazy in the world. We just have to try.

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23 thoughts on “Protect Your Child from the Lifelong Consequences of Playing Doctor”

  1. A year ago my five year old daughter was “playing doctor” with a few other kids. One eight year old girl took her into the bathroom and inserted a play thermometer into her vagina. I had several conversations with in the days following to teach her about boundaries and she was not upset by the incident. I however was horrified and it was hard not to feel like my daughter had been raped. The older girl was the daughter of a friend of a friend in another city. Although my friend informed the other parents of the incident, along with our concern about what experiences led their daughter to act in this way, they were blase about the incident. I don’t know all the details about this Wisconsin case but I know from a parental perspective how upsetting it can be to be the parent of a child who is touched in an inappropriate way, even if the perpetrator is another child.

    1. That is very upsetting for sure. I applaud all the different ways you have handled the situation. Talking to your daughter on more than one occasion may seem daunting to most parents but is just the type of serial processing that difficult topics require. And kudos for making sure that the parents of this girl learned of her behavior. Most likely it is out of their own discomfort that they acted blase. I hope that, despite their seeming lack of reaction, they really heard you and continue to talk to and monitor their own child. Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Hi, my daughter is three years old and is all a three year can be and more. She is a free spirit, happy, lovable child. We have been having some problems lately though, she doesn’t have any boundaries. She literally has no stranger danger what so ever. Last weekend we met some people for a camping trip my daughter had never met them before and yet acted like they were family. In the evening she started kissing and giving hugs excessively, it disturbed our friends husband. I put our daughter to bed after the incident and told her she does not do that to people she just meets and who are not family. We are as a whole a very show affectionate family. We show our love to her in hugs and kisses do you think we are too affectionate? Just today she went upstairs to her friends room and they started to play doctor. When I asked her about it, she told me it was the “nakey doctor” game. She doesn’t have a doctor kit. My husband and I have intercourse at night while she is sleeping. She is also our only child. I am so scared and I did set her up with a doctor appointment. I read all that you wrote and have noted some things and will explain to her some things. I honestly didn’t think it would be this soon. If you have any other advise I would appreciate it .

    1. Krystal,
      I understand why you are nervous. However, this sounds like normal exploratory behavior. You need to spend some time setting up and enforcing boundaries, and I always think an appointment with your doctor is a good idea. That said, this does not sound out of the range of normal to me for an outgoing, friendly 3 year old.

  3. My 5 year old son told me that an 8 year old female had taken his clothes off then taken her clothes off and she laid on top of him, and she touched his penis. They were doing s e x. He spelled it out. I asked him what those letters were and he said he didn’t know. We also found she had recorded him urinating. He said he didn’t want to do this and didn’t like it. Told him that he is to scream and come to tell us right then if anything close happens again. Talked to the girls mom and she said she spoke to her. What do you think of this?

    1. It sounds like everyone handled this situation appropriately. And also that your son should not be alone with this girl again. Does that make sense?

  4. I found your article tonight as I was concerned about events in my childhood that may be impacting parts of me today. My cousin and I played doctor as children. We are two years apart with him the younger. This usually happened in the back of the car on trips or in my bedroom probably starting when I was 8, and he was 6. I never touched or saw his private parts nor did I have interest. He initiated the play and would simply press my private area saying he was “checking me out, ” or “doing an experiment.” I felt nothing but discomfort. Our parents never saw us. I never told my family as I was afraid. I don’t remember the first occurrence of this play but rather when it ended. I was 10 and he was 8. I remember saying, “no, I don’t want to do this anymore,” and he never mentioned it again.

    Was 10 years old too old? A part of me feels like I’ve done something terrible by letting my cousin touch me. My family always told me it wrong to let a stranger touch you but I don’t understand I didn’t speak up sooner about my cousin.

    1. Would you blame a ten year old you knew now for being taken advantage of – or even agreeing to experiment – with an 8 year old? The guilt and shame you are expressing are understandable but not reasonable. I think that you would benefit from some counseling to set these concerns to rest.

  5. Yes. When researching, I found a case of an 8 year old boy who is being charged with felonies, for doing something similar to a younger sibling. I believe it’s a case that is current. I can’t wrap my head around an 8 year old and felony charge.

  6. I think you’re all nuts. Playing doctor, exploring your body is part of growing up. You’re making way more of these situations than your children. You are being paranoid schizophrenics. I don’t want to imagine what it would be like to be in a sexual relationship with you people.

  7. I don’t know what to do,

    When I was six or seven I had a friend named Terry, who I guess I played doctor with according to her, I honestly barely remembered her, up until she contacted me about six months ago (I’m 19 now) and said she had been talking to her therapist and they had concluded that I raped her when I was a child and I should feel lucky that she wasn’t pressing charges.
    How should I handle this? I barely even remember her.

    1. Heather, you have a few choices. You can simply say, “I’m sorry, I don’t remember that at all.” If that is the case, and you think she might actually press charges, especially as it is possible it wasn’t you and she is putting a few memories together. You could say “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” You could also, if you’re feeling very kind and think it’s likely true, ask her what might help her for you to do. Be careful, but kind if at all possible.

      1. I think she is putting memories together, and I’m more worried about her than myself. I wonder what kind of therapist she is seeing for them to conclude that. I have a favorite therapist of my own I offered to get her in touch with, because it seems to me that memories from that far back would be more inconsistent than anything else. How would she press charges anyway? I mean there is no proof anything happened and we haven’t seen each other since we were that young and she moved to live with her father.

  8. Thank you for having this post. When I was 7 there was a boy who was 6. He told convinced me to show him my bum saying he wouldn’t play with me if I didn’t. He was literally the only kid around on summer cottage trips. So I went along. Next time he wanted to touch my privates. I said no so he said he was going to tell the adults that I showed my bum and made him look and I’d be the one in trouble because I was older. I panicked. I was the kid that never got in trouble. Not even a time out! End result was three long summers of him doing things to me, me not wanting to but being worried and scared. He kept saying he did these things to lots of other girls. When I was 10 I stopped hanging out with him. I chose to stay with the adults and watch them play cards for eight hours straight. Everyone thought I was interested in the card game…meanwhile I was just scared and didn’t want to have things done to me anymore. It wasn’t until I was a teen that I started wondering if what happened was simply “playing doctor” or something more. I decided that it was more. And worse. Him threatening me makes me now think he knew better. Plus he’d always hide it if an adult was walking past the room. I knew it didn’t seem right the first time, and after that I felt fear and shame “letting” him do things. I have only ever told my husband, who oddly had a similar situation happen when he was about 9 with a girl who was babysitting him who was 12. Except she made him do things to her and threatened him. I eventually found a counsellor I felt comfortable enough to see but they dismissed it as “normal playing doctor” and “all kids do it”. I truly feel that is not the case. I don’t blame the boy. I sort of wonder if perhaps he had been violated in some way. I will forever be traumatized by this. I can’t forget it. I wish I could. I think there is a difference between curiosity and playing doctor innocently and what I went through.

    My kids have been taught from day one what the proper terms are for their privates. When and who can “look” at them or touch if needed. And I remind them constantly. Not in an awkward way, just subtle ways. Like when we see a doctor I remind them since the doctor might need to check them out in private areas. They know that if I’m not in the room they can say no.

    I also make sure they understand anyone needing/wanting to look at their privates needs permission, even mom and dad. My daughter is prone to yeast infections but each and every time before applying cream I knock on the door asking if I can enter. Then I ask if it is ok that I help her with the cream.

    If you do it right, keep calm and make it a normal conversation, one that you touch on often enough to remind (we all need reminders to look both ways before crossing the street once in awhile…kids need those reminders more often and you’d hammer that in right?). They’ll get it.

    I never had those talks. If I did (and maybe I did and that’s why it felt wrong) I wasn’t reminded enough. I wasn’t ensured it was ok to talk about it etc.

    Kids need help building boundaries and maintaining the boundaries. And they need to know that if the boundaries are broken they have a safe non-judgemental person to talk to.

    1. Kim,
      You were sexually assaulted by that child. I’m so sorry. And you’re right, likely he was also assaulted – though not for certain. That doesn’t make what happened to you OK. I’m glad you were able to talk to your kids about good boundaries and to offer them a safe place for anything they wanted to say!

  9. This is an excellent article applicable even ten years later. We went through the “what is normal?” a few years ago, and it’s had lasting effects.

    Our 6-year-old son went through a period where he asked his closest female friend if she’d pull down her pants. He was curious, and these two kids were together all of the time. We didn’t view it as anything more than age-appropriate curiosity; her dad viewed it as a sign that our son was a predator and clearly had been sexually abused. He didn’t address it with us, but instead informed the school that our son was a danger to his daughter…while bizarrely encouraging the kids continue to have daily playdates.

    We spent a summer working through issues with experts, who confirmed that our son was normal, healthy and not abused. Unfortunately, the allegations destroyed all of the friendships between us. We understand that every family handles things differently, but for this family to jump to the conclusion that age-appropriate curiosity is instead the sign of a 6-year-old being a predator, and to not involve us in dialogue addressing their concerns? We had no chance to try and come up with a mutually-acceptable solution. Our pretty timid little kid instead was called into the principal’s office for behaviour that didn’t even happen during school hours. No, thanks.

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