Parenting Advice: Children Playing Doctor
It is common for many children to play doctor. They also may
play firefighter, police officer, or teacher. Kids have great imaginations and
they learn about the world through imitation. Most parents start to get
concerned when children are playing doctor and it appears to have sexual connotations.
It’s important for us to know that most children play doctor at some point it is normal to
become curious about each others genitals. You might find yourself walking into a room
and find your child with their pants down while a friend or sibling is observing their
private parts. This is something a lot of parents have experienced.
Parenting Advice: How to respond to kids playing doctor.
The parenting advice most experts would advise is for the parent not to overreact and respond in an emotional way. One of the worst things a parent can do is assume that when children play doctor it is a serious behavior problem. If we react by punishing or shaming our children it will lead to confusion about their bodies and their sexuality. The best parenting advice would be to calmly and assertively let your children know that what they are doing isn’t really appropriate and you would prefer that they play a different game.
The key to handling this situation is to deal with it in a
calm even way. Children will be more likely to be drawn to repeating behaviour
that gets a big reaction. We want our kids to have a healthy respect for their
bodies and it isn’t our goal to unintentionally reinforce unwanted behaviour.
If we calmly redirect them to something more appropriate and we encourage replacement
behaviours, they will be much more likely to respect our wishes. Also remember the more we monitor our children's play and even join in the more we can encourage appropriate play.
More advice for parents: talking about boundaries
This is also a good opening to talk to children about modesty and respecting the private parts of their bodies. We can use this opportunity to discuss with them the fact that no one should be looking at or touching their private parts unless it is a doctor or parent and usually only because of medical reasons. We don’t want our kids to be ashamed of their bodies but we also want them have a sense of personal boundaries. We also want to remind our kids that they shouldn’t be putting objects into any of their bodily orifices, including the rectum, vagina, nose, or mouth (unless it is food or a drink-if you’re a smoker then you have another thing to explain).
Growing up I had a few friends who had a parent or two who
liked to walk around naked. It wasn’t an issue of them being creepy or sexual
in any way, they just had nudist tendencies. Unfortunately for their kids it
caused problems as they rarely could have friends visit their home (I guess that’s
one way to take care of unwanted visitors) and it made them more than a little
self-conscious about their families. I am not going to moralize here but it is just
easier to teach children about personal boundaries and self respect when we
practice a modicum of modesty ourselves.
Other conerns: Sexual abuse
As parents the concern these days over sexual abuse is also very high. Our anxiety around these issues can lead some parents to looking for signs that their child may have been abused or that they were imitating something they had been taught by an older child or adult. As parents, we need to be careful not to begin asking leading questions as many young children will tell parents what they think they want to hear. The bottom line is that curiosity about each other’s private parts is normal.
However, the best advice for parents is if you do have a strong feeling and there are some indications that sexual abuse may have occurred with your child, it is best to let an expert interview your child and if necessary arrange for an examination by a pediatrician who specializes in sexual abuse cases. Some indicators of sexual abuse in young children include a change in sleep patterns, reversion to bed wetting and/or soiling, anxiety, not eating, inappropriate sexual play with toys and objects, insertion of objects into the rectum or vagina, unusual itching, sores, or injuries in the genitals or rectum, sexually explicit drawings, sophisticated sexual talk, sophisticated knowledge of sexual acts, and sudden changes in behavior such as withdrawal.
The bottom line
As parents we are responsible for the safety and welfare of our children so it is always important to be vigilant. However, we also need to deal with these issues in as calm a way as possible. The majority of the time when a child plays doctor it is not a behavior problem. It is almost always an act of curiosity and almost always happens at some point for most children. We want our kids to grow up with healthy attitudes about their bodies and their sexuality so the best parenting advice is don’t overreact.