Playing doctor (having a look at your playmate’s genitals or private parts) is something that most kids do when they’re little. Sometimes you catch them and sometimes you don’t.
So what should you do when you walk in and catch your young child in the act of playing doctor?
Before we even think about what to do, we need to look at why kids do this ‘playing doctor’ thing where they have to look at their playmates genitals.
This is something that usually happens sometime between the ages of 3 to 6 years.
The reason that children do it, is because of curiosity. They have already worked out that there are differences between males and females, in regards to how we look on the outside. They make assumptions based on what they see ie daddy might have short hair and a beard and mummy might have long hair and wear dresses. But what about when mummy has short hair and daddy has long hair? So they then become curious and want to know if there are other ways to tell the difference. So when playing, it is quite natural for them to be curious about whether their playmate is different. So they will have a look at their playmates genitals and/or show them theirs as well.
So playing doctor, is an age-appropriate behaviour that children will do.
You’ll find more information about sex education in my Sex Education 101 page.
Nine times out of ten, it is a normal thing that kids just do. But sometimes it isn’t.
So how do you know when playing doctor’ is normal?
Normal is when kids are looking because they are curious. They:
If you’re still not sure, then this app can help you to work out whether the type of ‘playing doctor’ that they are up to, is normal or not.
It is 100% natural if your first instinct is to shout at them and tell them to put their clothes back on! And you’re not alone if this is what you have done in the past! Walking in on your child inspecting their friend’s genitals (or vice versa) can be pretty confronting!
So what should you do when you catch them?
First of all, take a deep breath. Don’t panic and don’t get angry. They are just being curious.
Next you need to distract them with another activity. Try saying something like, ‘How about we go and have something to eat’ or ‘Let’s go outside and jump on the trampoline’. Try to say it in your everyday voice, without sounding angry! Keep them in a space where you can keep a closer eye on what they are up to.
Then once the other child has gone home, talk about what happened with your child. By then, you will have calmed down, had time to read this article again, and you’ll be ready to talk about it.
So what do you do when the parent of the other child turns up? Do you tell them what happened or do you just keep quiet?
That is up to you. You do what you are comfortable with. But try putting yourself in their shoes for a moment. Would you want to know about it? If it happened whilst your child was playing at their friend’s house?
If you do decide to talk to the other parent about it, you could casually mention what happened. For example ‘Well the kids had fun playing today. They decided to play doctor and I walked in on them doing a pelvic examination on each other. I got the biggest shock in my life.’
Not all parents will understand that ‘playing doctor’ is a normal age-appropriate activity that kids will do, so you will also need to let them know that it all appeared to be innocent. And that you both might need to keep a close eye on them, for the next few play sessions that they have together. For example ‘I know that this is what they do at this age and it did look innocent but it still gave me a shock. We might have to keep a close eye on them, the next few times that they play together.’
Be open, honest, and matter-of-fact. Don’t try to assign blame or worry about upsetting your adult friendships. As hard as it can be!
It is advisable to sit down and chat about what happened.
Try to keep it casual or your child may think they are getting in trouble and not be willing to talk about what happened. You may even have to reassure your child that they aren’t in trouble.
Ask them what happened earlier that day. You could try saying ‘ When I walked into your room today, I saw that you and your friend were having a look at each other’s private parts. What game were you playing?’
Try to work out if it was innocent (consensual, spontaneous, not happened before) and if your child was unbothered by it. They will usually let you know if you keep the tone of the conversation casual.
Let your child know that it is okay to be curious about their friend’s body parts and that you understand their curiosity, but that ‘Its not okay to touch anyone else’s private parts or let them touch yours’. Books are a great way to chat about this. Some great Australian books to start with are Everyone’s Got a Bottom by Tess Rowley or these 3 from Jayneen Sanders – My Body! What I Say Goes, No Difference Between Us or No Means No!. You can also start talking about the gender differences that happen in your own household. Or buy a baby doll that is anatomically correct.
Next time your child has a friend over to play, try to keep a close eye on them by keeping bedroom doors open, encouraging them to play in the lounge room. Try to discreetly stay in the background and watch out for any sneaky behaviour.
There are some books that might help with reminding children of your family rules in regards to touching someones else’s genitals or them touching yours. A lot of books talk about body safety, but the ones listed here, do the best job of talking about touching genitals.
A great book for slightly children aged 6+ and that talks about children touching each other’s genitals, is Gary just didn’t know the rules by Holly-ann Martin. This book directly tells children that they can’t touch another child’s private parts (and is the only book that I know of, that does this).
Books that are helpful for younger children are Everyone’s Got a Bottom by Tess Rowley, My Private Parts are Private by Robert D. Edelman, My Underpants Rule by Kate and Rod Power*, and Only for Me by Michelle Derrig (available at Amazon and Book Depository). These books don’t tell children that they can’t touch another child’s genitals and are focused on someone touching their genitals. So you will need to adapt the story to include that rule. And if you find a book that does tell children that they can’t touch another child’s genitals, please contact me and tell me the name of it!
* A parent (thanks Sara!) emailed me to say that My Underpants Rule by Kate and Rod Power does talk about not touching someone else’s genitals.
‘Playing doctor’ is usually just a sign that your child is curious about the differences between people. But there are better (and safer) ways to satisfy your child’s curiosity about these differences.
You can help to satisfy your child’s curiosity by teaching them the names of their private parts, by talking about the differences between boys and girls and by teaching them body safety ie how to be the boss of their own body, and the difference between public & private.
Books are a great way to start these conversations. You can find some fantastic books to help you prevent any more episodes of playing doctor.
I'm Cath, a sex educator living in Australia with my husband and 2 kids. I help parents to talk about sex (with less cringe and more confidence) and to empower their child to make smart sexual decisions. You can join my online parent support group here and visit my shop for helpful resources.