6

My wife recently discovered our 6 and 4 year old daughters playing an imaginary game where they were pretending to be "husband and wife" and they both had their pants off. As soon as she walked in, they both stopped whatever it is they were doing.

Obviously since they are both so young, there is no actual physical attraction between them, I think they are just acting out in a game what they believe a married couple does and part of that seems to be intimacy and showing each other their private parts.

Should we ignore this behavior or should we address it somehow? If it it the later, what exactly should we say to them in a way they will understand.

I should also note that our household is fairly conservative, my wife and I don't french kiss in front of our children and we also never allow our kids to watch any TV shows which has that level of intimacy.

1
  • 1
    I learned, that it is a helpful reaction, to ask the children, what they playing in an interested, not judging way. Like others wrote, children notice more than we assume. But grown ups interpret situations always with the "adult view" and may see more, than the children do while playing. For example some swimming baths have dressing rooms for families, so the children may played, they go to swim as a family. The behavior could have different reasons, and you will have an eye on it, if there are additional signs in one or the other direction. Dec 28 '20 at 16:38
8

This kind of "playing doctor" seems pretty common and nothing to be overly worried about, though I don't have any statistics (reliable ones would be difficult to collect, to put it mildly). Its going to be some combination of things overheard, stuff learned from schoolmates, and ordinary curiosity.

(Edit: this assumes there was no compulsion. If the older sister was pressuring the younger to do something she didn't want then that is a more serious problem)

The best course is to deal with it in the same way as any other unacceptable behaviour from children who don't know better: make it clear that they should not do this, and keep an eye open for repetition. Avoid sanctions if at all possible, otherwise you risk making them feel they can't come to you with questions or problems.

Beyond that, use this as a teaching moment for the idea of private parts. Tell them that "if anyone, even a grown up, tries to see or touch those parts then they are being very naughty, and you should tell us or a teacher as soon as possible. You won't be in trouble for something that someone else did to you, or tried to get you to do".

Finally you should also consider explaining the actual facts of sex, in an age-appropriate way to the extent that they can understand. They are getting a confused picture from somewhere else and you need to substitute facts for myths and misinformation. Its a lot easier if you can get an age-appropriate book on the subject to read with them. Treat the whole topic in as straightforward matter-of-fact way as possible, and answer their question as fully and honestly as you can.

10
  • 2
    They weren't "playing doctor", they were playing "Mommy and Daddy", which is (enough) different. At this age, they should not know, unless they've seen it, that "Mommies and Daddies" get naked from the waist down (or more). That they heard it from their playmates or at preschool is a possibility, but somewhat unlikely. Kids do know much more tan adults think, but 6 and 4 is awfully early to play m&d naked. FWIW, at least doctors make kids undress. Exploring kids' genitalia is normal; pretending to be parents is normal; doing the latter while naked (at this age) is not. Dec 17 '20 at 17:42
  • 1
    @anongoodnurse We don't have enough context to tell. Perhaps the best thing would be for the parents to get the age-appropriate book I mentioned and use it to start a conversation about what the children have heard and where. Dec 17 '20 at 21:38
  • 2
    It doesn’t appear that these kids are confused at all, or misinformed. They actually have it correct. Mommy’s and daddy’s (or mommy’s and mommy’s, etc) DO play a game with their pants down, don’t they? ;-).
    – Jax
    Dec 19 '20 at 2:12
  • 2
    @Orbit A quick search on Amazon for "sex education books" turns up a number for various ages starting at 6. Dec 21 '20 at 10:58
  • 3
    There is no one age where sex becomes appropriate to talk about. My daughter, who was around 6 at the time as well, also learned about sex from a social and physiological perspective. There's nothing shameful in describing how reproduction works and what the social implications are. The only thing that matters is how great their attention span will be for something that is not particularly interesting to them.
    – forest
    Jan 11 at 0:40
4

I volunteer with young children regularly and have had to do research and training into child psychology as a result. Everything below should match the general conciseness from child psychologists about child sexuality, I'm sorry I don't have time to provide links to appropriate references though.

As already said 'playing doctor' is a common behavior at this age and not usually something to worry about. Children are curious and want to know more about their bodies and the bodies of others, they also have little sense of privacy and thus see nothing wrong with sharing their bodies with someone they trust who asks. Thus it's only natural they are happy to agree to a deal of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours", as far as they are concerned "showing theirs' isn't a big deal and is hardly a hardship if that's all they need to do to satisfy their curiosities about the opposite sex.

I know some have claimed this situation is different then 'playing doctor' because they claim that a child shouldn't know mommies and daddies sometimes are naked together, but I do not agree with that sentiment. The kids were completely correct that parents are sometimes naked together after all, it's wrong to presume kids are so oblivious as to not pick up on obvious details about how the world works. It's entirely possible they figured out their own parents are sometimes naked together, for instance if they know you both change clothes in the same room it's not a giant leap to conclude that you must be naked in front of each other to do it. More likely they picked the idea up from television though, plenty of shows make allusions to adult sexuality and while those may not be shows you intend for your children to watch it's quite likely they overhear and see shows you, or even grandparents, babysitters, or other adults they visited, are watching and pick up details from them. They could also have picked it up from overhearing conversations or even jokes amongst adults. Finally even if you somehow kept your kids in a vacuum where they didn't see any adult content their peers likely have and may have said something to your kids about what they presumed adults did when alone. Children are far more attentive and pick up far more then most adults give them credit for! It's not at all inappropriate or unreasonable to presume a child would have deduced nudity happens amongst married individuals, it definitely doesn't require abuse to come to that conclusion.

I'll also point out that the kids didn't necessarily need to be certain that parents are naked to play this game. The real point was curiosity about the other sex, not the game itself. They would likely be happy to use whatever excuse is required to answer that curiosity. Just a vague idea that parents might be naked together is enough to justify a game both want to play anyways...

So the question is how should you handle this?

Ideally the best situation would have been to ask them to explain what they were playing and how they played it, without acting judgemental or concerned, when you first walked in. That would allow you to better understand their thoughts and intent that lead to them choosing to be naked together. It would have also allowed you to explain details about nudity, privacy, the differences between sexes, and consent in a way that would have flowed naturally from the situation. However, most of this discussion can still happen after the fact.

One of the first things you want to do is ask if both kids wanted to be naked, and if either kid felt forced to be naked. If either child felt in any way pressured or forced that would be a larger problem, requiring you to figure out how the child felt pressured, how severely the pressuring child imposed on the other child, and discuss why that was inappropriate etc etc. Luckily in these cases it's rare that either child has done much to pressure the other. Since kids this young generally don't mind being naked it likely didn't occur to them to be offended about being asked to get naked and so no pressure was required for them to agree to the game.

You would also want to explain nudity and privacy to them. You don't want to say being nude is always wrong or naughty, that risks causing them excessive guilt and also potentially making it harder for them to discuss nudity, their body, and sexuality with you later if they think even the most trivial aspect of sexuality is an 'always naughty' thing. That's a concern because it's important to put effort into making sure young children feel comfortable talking about their bodies now if you want them to feel comfortable talking to you as a teenage when they really need an adult they can trust to help them figure out things like how to get and use birth control, what activities is appropriate to do with a romantic partner, and even general relationship advice.

Instead you will want to talk to them about privacy and consent. Their private parts are private, things they usually want to keep to themselves. There may be times when it is good and okay to show those parts with other's, like when their parents are helping them take a bath or when a doctor needs to check those parts to make sure they are healthy, but they are still special parts they should try to keep private and probably shouldn't be showing to other children.

Along with this conversation you should start the discussion of consent. Tell them that their private parts are theirs and they get to decide when, and if, they allow other's to see or touch them. If anyone, child or adult, insists on seeing them or touching them and it makes the child uncomfortable they have the right to say no no matter what, even if it's an adult they trust or like! Most abused children are abused by someone they trust, so it's important they understand they can say no even to a trusted adult. Tell them if they aren't certain how they feel about someone asking to see their private parts they should come talk to you and you will help them figure it out and make sure the other person doesn't do anything that makes them uncomfortable.

Incidentally this conversation about consent should be reiterated in your actions. Children should always be taught that they should have to consent to other's doing things to their bodies. That means a child should feel free to ask not to be tickled, to refuse to give a hug or a kiss if they don't want to, to ask someone put them down etc. I know it's common for parents to pressure kids to give hugs to family members when they leave etc but if you really want to drive home the importance of consent then teach them it is their choice. The child should say goodbye to family, but if they don't desire physical contact when saying goodbye teach them they have that choice. Likewise if your child upsets another child by touching, hugging, or other physical contact when explaining why they were wrong make sure to point out the other child didn't consent to the contact and how it's wrong to touch someone's body without consent. Doing this will reinforce the importance of consent so children really understand that they have decisions about their own bodies. This doesn't just ensure they will tell you if someone tries to touch them inappropriately, which is in all honestly extremely unlikely to ever happen to them, but ensures as teens and young adults they feel comfortable setting limits and telling their partners what they are and are not comfortable with.

While you are speaking with your children about nudity it wouldn't hurt to ask the children if they have seen anyone else naked or been naked around other people. Do it in a casual manner, without implying there is anything wrong with it! This way if a child had been abused by an adult, or even another peer, you will find out about it.

In the highly unlikely event they tell you they had an abusive experience ask for enough details to prevent it from happening again and to get the appropriate consoling for the child. You should make sure not to act angry or upset at any point during such a conversation, even if you are understandably furious at whoever did such a thing, as the child will likely interpret any anger as meaning they did something wrong and should feel guilty. You shouldn't tell the children their experience is wrong or naughty, at most you can tell them that it's known that often children end up feeling hurt when they do something like that with grownups so grownups are taught to never do stuff with children. Saying it that way stresses that they did nothing wrong, that it was the grown up who broke the rules, and that the rules are only there to protect them not because sexuality itself is inherently wrong or their being involved in the experience means they did something wrong. If you believe actual abuse happened it's best to save explaining fully why it shouldn't have happened and how the adult who did it will be getting in trouble for an expert who is trained in handling abused children and knows best how to explain it safely if possible. That being said answer any and all questions the child has, answer them honestly, and make sure you don't imply there is anything wrong with discussing this with you. Obviously also tell them you love them and they did nothing wrong, you just want to make sure they aren't hurt by a grown up.

Finally since your children are showing an interest in the opposite sex this is a good time to explain the differences between the sexes. Us the correct terminology for their body pars, not some child safe euphemism, and express a willingness to answer any questions they may have. Knowing the proper terms for their body will also help protect a child form abuse by making it easier for them to explain if they feel someone did something inappropriate, and besides it's simply a good idea for a child to understand their body!

You may also want to consider some age appropriate discussion of the basics of sexuality and where babies came from. It's not that important that such a discussion happens at the same time your explaining the differences between the bodies, but it is a good idea to explain this stuff, at least up to the level the children are capable of understanding, early and his seems as good a time as any to do it. This is part of keeping the dialog open and ensuring children are comfortable talking with you about 'private' things so that hopefully they will still be willing to discuss important details as teenagers. Though I should stress there should not be one discussion about reproduction or sexuality, it's good to explain some basics now, and to keep having discussions and elaborating on these details as they grow older. I have a whole separate answer about how to discuss these details you can read if interested.

2

I think they are just acting out in a game what they believe a married couple

I really hate to say this, but one of the hallmarks of a child being molested is if the kid is engaged in inappropriate sex play. It's one thing for kids to look at each other, to see how they are different or the same, but playing while half naked, on the grounds that that's how you play at being married? That strikes me as odd.

I'd ask your pediatrician.

7
  • 5
    By all means check with a pediatrician, but this kind of thing on its own is not a symptom of sexual abuse. The NSPCC lists "Language or sexual behaviour you wouldn't expect them to know." as a symptom (nspcc.org.uk/what-is-child-abuse/types-of-abuse/…), but the OP doesn't describe that. More generally, this kind of long-range diagnosis is generally discouraged here. parenting.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1427/… Dec 16 '20 at 3:11
  • 1
    See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_doctor Dec 16 '20 at 3:14
  • 1
    I agree with @anongoodnurse. “Sexual behavior you wouldn’t expect them to know” is exactly what the OP describes. If taking your pants off in order to pretend to be doing what married people do (sex) isn’t sexual behavior then what is it? I also don’t think it’s abuse (at least not by the parents, since they’re asking here) but something seems off here. A pediatrician should be able to at least refer the parents to someone (a social worker, child therapist, etc) who can ascertain where/how these kids came to know about what goes on behind closed doors.
    – Jax
    Dec 19 '20 at 2:09
  • 2
    Every 5 minutes in the US, a child is taken from their parents by CPS due to a misunderstanding, often with irreparable damage to relationships and reputation. I would be exceedingly cautious to suggest something like this for a behavior that is, by and large, normal. Even hypersexuality is more likely to be a result of bipolar disorder than sexual abuse.
    – forest
    Jan 11 at 0:38
  • 1
    @dsollen Unnecessary calls to CPS (especially in regards to mandatory reporting) has actually caused significant delays and is something they're actively trying to work to combat.
    – forest
    Jan 23 at 4:37
-1

The behavior you described is "learned"... meaning it isn't a natural development of them just playing together. I'd suggest talking to them to correct the behavior and then being very diligent about what they are exposed to. Kids will emulate what they see, and as a previous answer mentions, they see a lot!

It sounds like you are already careful with what you allow your kids to watch and of your behavior with your wife around them at home. They picked it up from somewhere... maybe friends houses, family gatherings when the kids were off somewhere playing without any adults. Sometimes kids in these young age ranges get mixed together with kids just a little older... ie. a 6 yo playing with a 9 yo at a family reunion. Those older kids might have seen things and played that way and your kids picked it up from them.

It's hard to watch over them every second of every day, so teach them the basics of modesty and appropriateness and they will be better equipped if they see this kind of stuff in the future.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.