Do you remember “playing doctor” as a kid? I do. I was six and playing with my neighbor, Derek who was my age. He had one of those tablecloth play houses – remember those? It was a plastic cloth that had windows, a door and the sides went down to the ground.
I don’t know exactly what we were doing – checking out each other’s parts or maybe we had our shirts off, I don’t recall those details.
What I do remember is Derek’s dad poking his head in and then ordering us out of the playhouse. I was sent home.
I had no idea why we were in trouble, but we were. I eventually figured it out.
This kind of play – exploring bodies, looking and even touching – is universal. Kids all over the world engage in this kind of play. It’s one of the ways they learn about sexuality.
What’s not universal is how the adults respond. Most adults respond out of fear – fear of sexual abuse, cultural norms, religious teachings, or our own experiences in childhood.
When adults are able to calmly disrupt this type of play, everyone does better. The kids learn that while the play isn’t appropriate, they aren’t in trouble. If the adults respond with shame, blame or yelling, the kids learn the adults freak out when this kind of stuff happens.
When your kid knows this behavior upsets you, they will make sure you don’t get upset again. This could mean they don’t play this way anymore or they just hide the behavior.
Hiding sexual play can lead to hiding child sexual abuse.
We need our kids to feel confident we can handle anything they do. If we freak out over something as simple as “playing doctor” they may think we can’t handle it if something truly awful is happening to them.
And if they won’t confide in us, we can’t help them if they need it.