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Let’s Play Doctor…Sexual Games & Young Children

Your child’s preschool teacher has just informed you of a delicate situation. Your daughter and a child in her class were “playing doctor” and were caught investigating each other’s genitals. How do you react? Is this normal? How should you talk to your child about this? 

First and foremost, take a deep breath and realize that it is perfectly normal for young children to be curious and play body exploration games. This is not erotic behavior, but curiosity.  Sexual behavior is uncomfortable for adults, but generally quite innocent for young children.

Beginning around age two and a half and continuing until around age seven, most children are eager to explore similarities and differences in body parts with their peers. They are just venturing into the unknown and tend to do sexual exploration through games. Generally these games are conducted in one of three ways:

  • “Show – Turn Taking” – children take turns showing their genitals through mutual agreement.
  • “House” – children imitate mom and dad or boyfriend and girlfriend by playing house and getting naked in front of each other.
  • “Doctor” – children take turns playing doctor and patient by “scientifically” checking each other’s body parts, including genitals.

Remember, curiosity and not erotic drive generally motivate young children who engage in these sexual games. Their exploration seldom moves any further than observing each other and doesn’t consist of the emotional give and take associated with adult romantic love. However, sometimes children exposed to sexual abuse or activity may ‘act out’ to make sense of their experience. For information on sexual abuse, see Nibbles “Preventing Sexual Child Abuse”.

The greatest potential danger with children playing sexual games can be the way in which adults handle the situation. If the response is too strong, abrupt or disapproving, the child will feel confused, embarrassed, shamed or guilty and may become lured to sexual matters in general.

Whenever you interrupt children in the middle of sexual games….

  • do so gently
  • explain that a body part is something private
  • ask them to keep their clothes on when playing with others

If you were not a witness to the sexual game, talk to your child in a calm, mild manner. Ask your child to explain what he or she did. Then share with them the “privacy” explanation and the “keep your clothes on” guideline. Last, but not least, give your child a big hug and tell them how much you love them.

Prepared by: Diane G. Ryals, Family Life Educator, Morgan-Scott Unit Spring 2001, Revised 2006

Editor: Patti Faughn, Family Life Educator, Springfield Center, 2006