“Catching” Your Kid Playing Doctor

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An ongoing patient comes in yesterday and wants my advice: she says she caught her 5-year-old playing doctor with her pal Jenny. Mom’s arrival apparently broke up whatever they were doing, but mom wants to know what to do now.

The word “caught” caught my ear.
I start with a few routine questions:

How old is Jenny?
They’ve known each other a while?
Did it seem friendly or coercive?
Friendly. Very friendly.
Were large objects inserted anywhere?

Getting impatient, mom tells me a few things that she thinks are relevant.

The door was closed.
Did you knock?
No. She’s never closed her door before.
Oh. I guess the closed door meant something to her.
They jumped when I walked in.
Well, you interrupted them.
They looked guilty.
Since your attitude was that you “caught” them, I guess they felt “caught.”

Mom senses that I don’t appreciate the gravity of the situation. So, somewhat reluctantly, she spells it out for me.

I think they were, you know, playing with each other.
Yes, you already said they were friends on a play date.
No, playing with each other—you know, with their private parts.
You mean their vulvas?

Dead silence. Mom knows from experience that I won’t rescue her by speaking, so she bravely continues.

OK, whatever. But they were playing with each other.
Yes, I understand. You seem upset.
Well…that isn’t healthy, is it? I mean, they’re 5!
Yes, that’s the age at which playing doctor would make sense.
You don’t think there’s anything wrong with it? They’re too young!
Too young? I don’t think you mean you’d rather she do it when she’s 10, right? I’m being sincere here, not snarky.

At this point I’m accused of being snarky. Worse, mom calls me “one of those liberal sex therapists who probably thinks I’m just a prude.” Well of course I am, and of course I do. But I don’t say so, because that’s beside the point. But I do respond.

Actually, I’m a professional. I’m extremely sympathetic about your distress, and fairly knowledgeable about developmental psychology and sexuality. Let’s definitely talk about your feelings, and when you’re ready I can share some facts about kids’ healthy sexual development.
I’m sorry I brought this up. I should have known better.
I’m glad you brought it up, because this is a turning point in the history of this family—not to mention her development and yours.
Well, let’s just skip all the psychology and just answer me one question. What should I do?
I don’t want to be difficult here, but do about what? Your feelings? Her need for privacy? Her relationship with her body and her sexuality?
Oh God, this is just getting worse. C’mon—should I let them play together anymore? Should I forbid them to close the door? Should I tell Jenny’s mom—oh God, don’t tell me to do that.
No, I won’t tell you to do that. In fact, I won’t tell you to do anything, because it isn’t clear yet what you want to accomplish. I know you want your kid to be healthy and happy and strong, so I know you don’t want to derail her normal sexual development.

Rolling her eyes, mom interrupts:

But she’s so young!
Yes she is. That’s exactly when kids start learning about taking care of their teeth, the importance of good manners, how to deal with conflict, how much easier life is if you put your things away—the skills they’ll need as an adult. That’s when their sexuality starts developing, too. “Young” is right on schedule.
OK, so just answer me: should I stop her from playing doctor?
It depends on what you want to accomplish. If you want to interrupt her from exploring her sexuality in a safe, comfortable environment, stop her. If you want her to hide her sexual questions and exploration from you, stop her.

Now came the hard part.

I understand that you’re uncomfortable being confronted with her sexuality. And I know you adore her and want what’s best for her. I’m afraid this won’t be the last time you feel those two things battling inside you.

Mom seemed thoughtful about this, so I continued.

I know you want to support her in being healthy and happy. I want to support you in that project. I also want to support you through your difficulty here. And just like you want to handle this episode with her to empower her in the future, I want to handle this with you to empower you in the future. Because, as we both know…if she’s healthy, she’s going to become more sexual rather than less, and probably on a faster timetable than you’re comfortable with.

Mom’s face was a mixture of relief, sadness, confusion, longing, and surrender. She looked very, very human.

Can you recommend a book for me?
Well, I enthusiastically recommend this.

I showed her my copy of It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris.

This is a book for kids!
Yes. Buy it for her. Feel free to read it first; then read it with her; and then read it again on your own. You’ll be joining the 1,000,000 happy-sad, nervous-proud, slightly queasy parents who have already read it.

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