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.