We have had many phone calls from distraught parents who have gone ballistic upon opening a bedroom door and discovering two little naked bodies playing “doctor and nurse.” This scene, common in even the most moral and loving homes, pushes panic buttons in parents who wonder where they have gone wrong, or react so strongly that the punishment leaves more scars than the innocent “crime.” To deal with this inevitable scene it helps parents to know what’s normal, what’s not, and what to do.
What’s normal? General Curiosity. Children are curious, especially about differences, and what could be more fascinating than different genitals? Understand this situation for what it is—normal childhood curiosity at work. It needs sensitive understanding to prevent it from reoccurring. Get behind the eyes of your child. He wants to learn what the other sex looks and feels like. The child is more interested in satisfying curiosity than in sexual arousal. You can tell innocent sexual curiosity from deviant sexual behavior by these characteristics. Innocent acts are occurring when:
- Children are young (under age seven), close in age, and know each other.
- There is mutual agreement; one child is not forcing the other.
- There is usually a game-like atmosphere: playing “doctor” or “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
- Secrecy is part of the game. As if sensing their parents would disapprove, children retreat into a bedroom, garage, or a private place. (This is true for deviant acts as well.)
What to do. First, to compose yourself and resist the impulse to come on strong toward the children telling them that they have done something “dirty” or “bad.” Calmly and matter-of-factly introduce a new activity. (i.e., “Let’s go have a snack. I’ll help you get dressed.”) As soon as a private moment is possible (or right away if both children are yours) have a talk with your child. Convey that you are not angry. If children sense that they have done something bad or that you are angry, they will clam up. Tell your child that it’s normal to be curious about another’s body parts, and that you understand his curiosity, but that “its not right to touch anyone else’s private parts or let them touch yours. I want you to promise mommy that you will keep your private parts private and not touch anybody else’s.” Let the parents of the other child know how you handled the situation so they can do likewise.
Children can begin to learn the meaning of “private parts” at an early age, when they are learning about other body parts. Private parts are any place that your swimming suit covers. Be aware of your own body language when addressing your child’s sexuality. If your child perceives that you are uneasy about sexual matters, he or she may conclude this is a “bad” subject or these are “bad parts.” They are good parts, but they are private parts. This concept will be important in teaching your child about sexual molestation. Teach your child that these “special parts” should not be touched or shown to anyone except mommy or daddy during a bath or dressing or to the doctor during a checkup. “If anyone touches your private parts, promise to tell mommy or daddy. We won’t get angry. It’s good to tell mommy or daddy if somebody touches you, even if they tell you not to or tell you to keep a secret.” Teach children the concept of good secrets and bad secrets. “Good secrets are what you have between friends” (and make up some examples). “Bad secrets are when somebody tells you not to tell mommy or daddy. You should never have secrets from mommy or daddy.” Begin teaching “private parts” as early as age three so that modesty becomes part of a child’s growing sexuality.
To prevent recurrences of genital play, minimize opportunities. Be aware of what children are doing. Don’t allow them to be unsupervised behind closed doors. We have a rule in our house that bedroom doors must always be open when friends are over—at all ages. Our teenagers have grown up with this rule and still respect our wishes on this policy. You are applying the same principles to sexuality as you do to all discipline matters: parents set the rules and then set the conditions that make the rules easier to follow. If you sense that your child is still curious, make this a teachable moment: “The body is beautiful. Let’s learn more about it. Let’s start with a picture book.” If your four-to- six-year-old wants to know where babies come from, we recommend the book: by Andry and Schepp (Little Brown, 1979). Be willing to answer your child’s questions as they come up. Keep in mind that age- appropriate answers do not have to be embarrassing for anyone. If you start out this way at a young age and continue to dialogue about sex with your child, your child will feel comfortable talking to you about sex as they get older.
Be sure to report the incident to the other parents so that they too can make this a teachable moment. Tell them that you understand the innocence and the normality of childish curiosity, but that you also want to keep it from happening again. Be open, honest, and matter-of-fact. Don’t assign blame, and you shouldn’t have to worry about upsetting adult friendships.
To foster healthy sexual identity and help a child be proud of the body he or she is developing, give genitalia the proper names, beginning with naming body parts when changing your toddler’s diaper. When your son grabs his penis say, “That’s your penis” (instead of “thingy”). Tell your daughter, “That’s your vulva” (instead of “bottom”). There is a whole vocabulary of slang words for the penis in particular, which only adds to its mysteriousness and “dirty” image. The unisex term “pee-pee” to describe an area of the body somewhere between your legs and from which urine mysteriously spurts can be confusing to a child. Girls have a vulva and a vagina; boys have a penis and a scrotum. Most children can understand and use these terms by age three.
When sex play is not normal. How do you tell when the line has been crossed from innocent, childish curiosity that needs to be handled with understanding and explanations into abnormal behavior that needs serious attention? It’s important for parents to know how to tell when one child is victimizing another. Here are suspicious signs:
- One child entices or forces the other into sex play.
- There is an age difference of more than three years between children.
- The sex play is not appropriate: for example, oral-genital contact between a six-year-old and a three-year-old.
- The event occurs more than once despite your careful intervention and supervision. These are grounds to protect your child from another by terminating the friendship. If the sex play is between siblings, seek professional help.
- If your child has been threatened to keep it a secret.
What to do. For the victimizer, seek professional counseling. It is often necessary to do a complete inventory of a child’s self-concept, home, and school environment. If your child is the victim, replay the “private parts” talk. Be sure that your child understands that he is not bad and his body is not bad but that it is wrong for one person to touch another’s private parts. The victim may also need professional counseling.