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Playing Doctor

by Elizabeth Pantley, Author of Kid Cooperation and Perfect Parenting

I can’t believe it! I walked into the playroom and found my child comparing private parts with a friend. They said they were playing “doctor.” I yelled at them and sent the friend home. Later, I felt like I should have handled it in a better way. How should I have handled it?

Think about it:
If you found the kids eating candy before dinner, or playing with a baseball in the house, you’d handle the situation easily. If, however, they were eating candy or playing ball with their clothes off, you’d suddenly feel confused and concerned. That’s because you’re viewing the situation from an adult point of view. Most times, childhood nudity and mutual curiosity is normal and natural. You just need to teach kids what’s appropriate and what’s not.

Say calm:
If you actually walk into a room and catch children playing with their clothes off, it’s best if you can remain calm. Make a statement such as, “It is not appropriate to play with your clothes off.” Help them get dressed and find an activity to get involved in. Later, at a quiet time, have a brief conversation with your child about what is and is not appropriate. Teach that they must always keep their private areas (bathing suit areas) covered. If this happens with the same two children more than once, don’t let them play together unsupervised. (Don’t make a major announcement, just monitor their time together.)

Teaching time:
Take the situation as a cue that your child is ready for more sex education. Spend a brief amount of time answering any of your child’s questions. Let your child’s interest and questions lead the discussion and don’t overwhelm your child with too much information. Give straightforward answers in accurate, but simple terms. Address the issue of appropriate versus inappropriate touching so your child will learn how to be respectful of his own and others privacy.

Read about it:
Purchase a book about sexuality and development. Read it yourself, first, because there’s lots of stuff you may have forgotten, and some things you may not even know! Share it with your child at an appropriate time. Let your child know that you’re available to answer any questions. Two outstanding books for this purpose are: My Body, My Self for Girls and My Body, My Self for Boys both by Lynda Madaras. (Newmarket Press, NY, 1993)

Are they mimicking something they’ve seen? Take a serious look at what television shows or movies your child has been watching. Children model the behavior they see, even if they don’t understand it, so be careful what images they are being exposed to.

Take note:
Excessive interest in sexual topics, or repeated occurrences of sexual play, may be a warning sign of other problems. There may also be cause for concern if one of the children is several years older than the other. Discuss your observations with a pediatrician, school counselor or family therapist.

Copyright Elizabeth Pantley. (McGraw-Hill, 2003)

About the author:
Elizabeth Pantley is the author of several books, including
Gentle Baby Care : No-cry, No-fuss, No-worry — Essential Tips for Raising Your Baby, The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night, Kid Cooperation (with an introduction by William Sears, MD), Perfect Parenting, as well as her latest The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers and is also president of Better Beginnings, Inc. She is a popular speaker on family issues, and her newsletter, Parent Tips, is seen in schools nationwide. She appears as a regular radio show guest, and has been quoted in Parents, Parenting, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, American Baby, Working Mother, and Woman’s Day magazines. Visit Elizabeth’s web site

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