I have a 3 year old daughter who spends a bit of time playing with her male cousin who is 5 1/2. I recently walked in to my daughter's room where they were playing to find my daughter completely naked and the pair of them in a sex-like position. I understand kids being curious about their bodies and differences between boys and girls, but this was a bit out of my comfort zone.

This situation has brought up a few questions for me. the older child is not a fiend and is clearly mimicking some behaviour that he probably shouldn't be witnessing. Is this normal roleplaying behaviour that some kids go through? Can it be harmful to my daughter?

I am not in a situation where a can stop them playing together, how do I handle the situation with the other parent who is not as concerned as me?


6 Answers 6


I'm answering as someone who was involved in sex play as a child.

I feel that my experience is particularly useful in this discussion because it was fully benign (or so it seemed) and consensual. Struggling with the memory was complicated beyond what I can easily explain here. To begin with, I had lots of sexual thoughts through the ages of 4 to 12 and felt intense shame for it. My experience occurred when I was so young that I was actually able to deny that it ever happened, and told myself that I made it up... because I was a bad person, it just made sense to me that way. About a decade later on, the father of the other children involved went to prison for child molestation (I should stress this involved even more children). I confronted the others involved in my incident (now adults), and found out that indeed, it did happen and that I wasn't crazy, and that I was somewhat of a 2nd echo of the terror that an adult was causing to children.

We all obviously take this issue very seriously, but due to my own personal experience, I'm tempted to see it as much more than just "it's not sexual to them". There are several things that you need to consider.

  • You're thinking about the child, but the child grows up some day. You you need to think about how this person will face those memories as they grow up.
  • Even though it's not sexual to them, it probably leaves a big impression on them. Sex isn't just about sex, it's also about desires, curiosity, and a connection with another person. A young mind understands some of this, is very impressionable, and remembers such experiences well. This is why those memories can weigh on them heavily later in life (which could be harmless or terrible).
  • Right or wrong, we don't consider consent to be the same thing with children, and they need to be taught this. You don't need to condemn it, but you should teach them to not repeat the behavior, especially with other children who they would might otherwise see as perfectly interested.

There was a book that came out fairly recently which is absolutely fantastic for people who've struggled with such memories in their life. If you want the really long answer to this question, I would suggest you read it.

The Trauma Myth book cover

The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children - and Its Aftermath

To summarize, society's efforts to provide resources to victims of child rape and molestation have narrowed our picture of what we see as a victim. We've also narrowed the time frame on which we respond to it. We've equipped ourselves to deal with the proverbial pedophile stranger who goes after kids in the playground, even though most cases don't fit a profile even remotely close to that. The thrust of the book is that for most cases, the hard work of coping with childhood sexual trauma events often comes years afterwards as the individual learns how to correctly frame what happened, at which point they can feel all sorts of betrayal, shame, and other feelings.

This might sound unhelpful, but when my parents dumped a pile of sex-ed books from the public library in my lap it really didn't help me come to closure with what I was dealing with. It just intensified my feelings and didn't help me feel any less alone about it, but I think that sex-ed, in general, helps. Children at all ages need some form of sex-ed, and when you encounter such an event you're somewhat forced into it. The important things to communicate are:

  1. There is nothing wrong with whatever they feel or think. Other people have similar experiences.
  2. It's not okay to act on those feelings. It's not okay for anyone else to either. Above all, involving other people is not okay.
  3. They're going to hit puberty, and they're really going to have to deal with it then. There is a natural process of becoming and adult, and it involves a lot of confusing and frustrating feelings.

You have the opportunity to come from a space of understanding and empathy, not just about what your child is currently going through, but also about what they will confront in the future, which they don't know themselves. It might be a fairly trivial event and it might not be, but either way the child just needs someone to be there to show love understanding and acceptance.

The final thing to mention is that your relationship with the adults who spend time with your child's cousin might get complicated. It's important to mention it could be anyone who spends time that child who implanted these behaviors, or it could be none of them. Honestly, I would probably seek expert advice on this issue if I were you. I'm not an expert.

  • 4
    Thank you very much for this honest contribution! Were your experiences similar to the asker's situation (3yo and 5½yo) or with an older person? I don't clearly see whether you played with another kid who was in turn molested, or you were molested by an adult(ish) person. There's a lot of value for parents in the statements that kids have no concept of "consent" and that sex-ed might be called for sooner than the parents would like. Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 7:15
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    @TorbenGundtofte-Bruun Oh, it was actually the same math. I was 3, then 4, and the older children were ages ranging about 5 to 7. It's an unique age for this to happen, because there's ambiguity about whether the child will remember. I don't think many of us can remember when we were 3, but a high emotional impact event is much more likely to be remembered by the child. Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 12:10
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    I was thinking along these lines too. I had a friend who as a 3 or 4ish year old was engaged in sex play with an older female cousin (around 7). He said that he found out later that she had been molested by her father, and that is probably where she learned those behaviors. On the other hand, I had a different friend who said that he grew up playing "sex" with siblings, cousins, and friends, it was part of mimicking adult behavior, it stopped when they got close to puberty, and it was perfectly harmless.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 19:02

I have been in a simular situation with my daughter and a female friend when they were 5 and 4. The friend wanted to see what could fit into my daughter. I am also not in a situation to keep them from playing together. I took my daughter to the doctor because she was complaining afterward that it hurt. the doctor and I together had a discussion with her about touching and privates. Then for a few years they were not allowed to play privatly, but had to play where an adult can see. Now that my daughter is seven whenever she goes over I remind her of appropriate play and to tell an adult if she thinks it is not appropriate play. This seems to have worked.

In terms of why this child was doing this. I did speak with the parents about what had happened and I spoke to the doctor about the child being as the doctor sees that child as well, hopeful the doctor would keep a look out for odd things. That was the best I could do.


This is completely normal, and it's not sexual for the kids. Kids don't know about sex, but they are curious and bodily things fascinate them. Ask any 4-year-old about the difference between boys and girls, and she will immediately tell you about penises and vaginas and boobs, cause as far as kids are concerned, those are the only differences (isn't that lovely?!?).

If you catch them doing anything that you deem inappropriate (and remember that this is because you know about sex, the sexuality lies in your interpretation of their game), have them put their clothes back on (if they're off), and leave it at that. Don't make a big deal about it, you don't want your daughter feeling like what they did was wrong or dirty, cause that will not make them stop, they will just go to more trouble to hide what they're doing from you. To calm the curiosity a bit, maybe buy a book about the human body and where kids come from (Mommy laid an egg is brilliant!), so that you and your girl can talk about these things in a calm, natural way. Some people thinks that 3 is too young to learn about bodies and where babies come from, but the earlier you start the more openly you'll be able to discuss these things with her later in life.

  • 9
    I think you're wrong. As a 4 year old I distinctly remember rubbing myself on the carpet, and although I didn't have a name for it, the sensation was completely distinct from anything else. I didn't have a name for it, but it was a distinct activity. I have another memory when I was 6 and the school doctor did some weird test involving handling the penis (presumably to test for an erection). I got one, and that was a very bad memory for me. I remember feeling violated by the nurse, and also betrayed (by my parents, who sent me to the doctor for this "checkup"). (cont)
    – bobobobo
    Commented Aug 3, 2012 at 20:29
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    So although children won't call it "sex" it is still a very distinct sensation for a human, what we call "sex" is still a distinct set of feelings and emotions, this built in thing in our biology that some don't even fully understand when we're adults.
    – bobobobo
    Commented Aug 3, 2012 at 20:30
  • I've never heard of testing 6 year olds for erections, @bobobobo. Might you have been a victim of abuse by the nurse? I'm sorry that this happened to you. Commented May 26, 2014 at 22:37
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    @PeterDavis : It could have just been the 'turn and cough' for hernias, which at that young age could easily be interpreted that way.
    – Chi Chan
    Commented Oct 17, 2014 at 19:07

Playing doctor is something all kids want to try at some point. Being kids, there's no harm in that as long as it's literally innocent play and they didn't get any ideas from others in advance.

The answer about seeing "what can fit inside" sounds like one of those girls has seen more about purpose of the private parts than what a 4yo should know. If there's some indication that the kids know "too much" then I'd discourage it; you don't want them doing adult stuff.

When I was a kid (age 10 or so; at younger ages there was no opportunity so I can't comment on that) I played some innocent doctor games with a female friend in the neightborhood. I moved away later (unrelated reason) but otherwise it might have continued. I'm sure that was harmless, but it did awaken my curiosity for the opposite gender as well as a desire to see more.

Worse though, there was a boy in the neighborhood who showed me some of his dads pron movies and that has most certainly messed with my mind. There's a reason that such material is not allowed for underagers!

The combination of those two friendshipps has planted the idea in my head that "playing with kids" is okay even though I rationally know that it's absolutely not okay and highly illegal. This is all in my head; I've never done anything in the real world. But the thinking doesn't go away, ever.

And that's where the actual danger lies, in my opinion: if small kids' sex play is not truly innocent but informed from some source, then it can be the start of a very dangerous path.


My wife actually managed to have full intercourse at age 8 with a boy of the same age. She says it was actually her idea, but she's never been abused and doesn't know why she thought of it at the time. I guess they had already been playing inappropriately in the shower and she had the idea to lie down and put their parts together. Though she says it was certainly sexual and they both experienced pleasure from it, she doesn't think of the experience as abusive or really all that terrible aside from the embarrassment she has about it now. She's actually still acquainted with the guy, and he's apparently turned out perfectly normal and healthy as well.


Children are curious. This behavior is not necessarily "mimicking some behaviour that he probably shouldn't be witnessing". Humans are geared for sex, our brains are geared to think about sex and we have strong instincts toward sex. And children are sexual beings too. They are obviously not mature enough for it, but they do have curiosity towards it. It is normal for them to play this way.

Of course you should monitor this behavior and make sure nothing inappropriate is happening. But there's probably nothing abnormal with your child because you found him/her role playing sexual behavior. She/He is not a sex fiend or defective in any way. She/He are not necessarily being exposed to inappropriate sexual imagery or witnessing sexual acts. They are just instinctively using their bodies with a natural childish curiosity.

If you suspect this boy have been exposed to scenes he shouldn't be, you should talk to authorities. But the fact that he roleplays sexual behavior doesn't necessarily mean that.

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