Playing doctor: Normal for preschoolers?

My four-year-old son has been touching another boy's privates recently. The other boy is two. He has also touched a two-year-old girl's privates. He has not been around any other children besides the ones at his daycare and he is the oldest there. Could this be curiosity or problems? I asked him why he did it and he won't answer. I asked him if another kid at daycare is touching him and he said no.

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

It is natural for three to four year olds to explore their own and each others' genitals. Often children name this spontaneous play "playing doctor", presumably because this is the place they have experienced safe examination of their bodies.

It is important that you not shame your son around such exploration, but guide him appropriately in his current situation. You may benefit by exploring your own associations of "hurt" to sexuality which may be coloring your interpretations of his actions. He does need your guidance in this area! But be cautious about flooding him with your own anxiety about the subject of "sex"!

Share your concerns with your husband and with other parents who you feel comfortable talking to about how you want to approach your son's new interests in his and other children's bodies. It helps to know you are not alone in your concerns, and for this reason I will share a bit of my own experience as a parent with this issue and the outcome that was achieved with other parents' discussion and participation in addressing it.

When my daughter was 2 to 3 years old she attended a cooperative parents' preschool (in the midwest) part time. The children went through a period in which they were heavily involved in "playing doctor". As you may imagine, this stirred up quite a bit of anxiety in the parents. For several months, parents meetings focused on this issue. There were heated discussions and much controversy, but we were able to come to an agreement which I believe was a healthy outcome. Parents talked about their own sexual upbringing, including the mystery, guilt and shame that surrounded much of their initiation into sexuality. We talked about the clearing the air of fear, and focusing on how we wanted our own children to learn about their bodies.

It was decided that guidelines for safety and respect were in order, but that we should not curtail, shame or redirect their natural exploration with one another. We talked to the children (at home and in the daycare setting) about respecting their bodies and the game of "playing doctor" which included not putting anything (objects, etc.) into a girl's vagina, not pulling (hurting) the boy's penis, but being able to look at one another's bodies and observing the differences between boys and girls, if both children were equally interested in such exploration. Children were interested in the way peeing was different for boys and girls, the way the genitals looked, and yes children did know that their parents did something with these parts of the body that was a bit secretive, maybe exotic in some way. Whatever questions the children asked, adults answered. Where babies came from? (a big topic as many children at the center were having siblings) how they were made? And many children at the center were present in some capacity when their own siblings were born.

The result was that children explored each other in a safe (and supervised) manner in a little tent they set up to go into when they wanted to "play doctor". (Of course, other play activities could and did happen in the tent as well). One of the daycare workers would stand by, beside the tent to supervise unobtrusively. This was decided by the parents, so that other children who were not interested in such play (perhaps younger) would proceed to this interest on their own, and so that children would learn respect for privacy about their bodies.

I realize that this is by no means the norm in terms of a cooperative environment to answer our children's natural curiosity and wonder about their bodies. And not all situations will lend themselves to allow such exploration to flourish (and subside) in a natural manner. I was disappointed at the lack of awareness or interest in this issue when my son attended daycare in a different setting and state (California). However, the underlying messages of this very ideal situation in which my daughter was fortunate to experience, were the values of respect, wonder and a positive relationship to her body that are so important and so neglected in our culture.

Barring any molestation experience, your son's interest and touching of other children's genitals is most likely motivated by curiosity and wonder about the differences of bodies different from his own. Guide him in his exploration. Answer his questions. Teach him respect for others' privacy about their genital area, but do not project hurt onto his actions at this stage of development. For his relationship to genitals may become charged (to some extent) with shame, pain and guilt. Like anything that may require your supervision and guidance, help your child develop a positive sense of his body without hurting or disrespecting other people. And, yes this active interest in "playing doctor" does pass and children become interested in other activities like sports, riding bicycles and the rest.

But do keep in mind that our children's body awareness in toddlerhood, is a part of an ongoing relationship to their bodies and part of the foundation on which sexual pleasure as an adult will eventually evolve. Perhaps at some time in the future, we will be able to break out of our molds of sexual shame and repression to guide our children appropriately. For now, we often struggle in the dark as parents, just as we did as children and teenagers. But rest assured, that though you may need to talk with your child about respecting the genitals as a "private" area of the body and develop guidelines for appropriate "play" in your setting, you need not respond in any dramatic fashion, such as pulling your child out of preschool or even assigning "hurt" to his actions.

Instead, open up a dialogue with him about his body, his penis, vaginas, where babies come from, how girls and boys pee...and anything else he is interested in talking about. Explore books on the market that might help you address this subject. And ask your husband for help and guidance about his experience of being a boy, as well as support in discussing how each of you learned about your bodies (and sexuality) and how and what you want to teach your son about his relationship to his body and eventual sexuality.

Calmly responding to these issues now, will ready you for dealing with the hormones of your son's adolescence in the future!

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