When Your Child Plays Doctor

When Your Child Plays Doctor

Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Young children are naturally curious about anatomical differences

Four year old Julie is having a play date with her best friend, Justin. After awhile, it seems a little too quiet in her room, so mom walks in to check on the kids. She is shocked to find the two of them underneath Julie’s covers completely naked.

Needless to say, parents tend to get very frightened when situations like this occur. Unfamiliar with children’s sexual behaviors, they conclude that there is something very shameful about what these kids are doing. It is easy for parents to jump to conclusions and overreact with yelling and punishments. But sexual exploration is a natural part of being a child, and parents need to make a distinction between childhood and adult sexuality.

Children begin to explore sexuality when they are babies. They examine all their body parts to find out who they are. Touching the genitals when their diapers are off, feels pleasurable to them, so they continue this activity. Sexual pleasure and loving one’s body are positive feelings for kids and lead to healthy adult relationships. So, it is important for parents to work hard to foster these messages.

Pre-schoolers naturally are curious about the differences between boys about girls. They feel more separate and independent than before, and are in the process of figuring out their identity. Part of this investigation is understanding the anatomical differences between boys and girls. Nursery school teachers are quite familiar with coming upon two four year olds underneath the slide with their pants down, exploring each other.

When we react to our kids at these moments, we need to set limits, but at the same time convey to our children that curiousity about sex is natural and normal. Therefore, we must choose our words and actions carefully, to avoid embarrassing or shaming our kids, and establishing any negative associations.

Here are some guidelines for handling young children in these situations:

Stay calm: Remind yourself that you are witnessing children’s normal development in progress.

End the activity in a positive way: You might say for instance, “It’s time to get dressed.” (and not yell or treat them in a punitive way.)

Acknowledge their curiousity, while setting a limit. Tell your child, “It’s okay to be curious about each other’s bodies, but we don’t touch each other’s private parts.”

Support your child’s interest and curiousity: You can say, “I have a special book that we can look at together and we can talk about any questions you have.” There are many children’s books on the topic, so choose one that makes you feel comfortable.

In general, it is wisest to establish a rule that whenever a friend is over, the door must be kept opened. Children are easily overwhelmed by their impulses and will act out less with this supervision.

With explanations and your gentle support (and boundaries), your young child will feel your acceptance of his curiousity, will learn appropriate ways to handle his interest, and will leave the situation with his self -esteem in tact.