Children are naturally inquisitive about their own and other people's bodies. Experts say innocent exploration is a healthy part of early-childhood development. Still, many parents are flustered if they find children "playing doctor." This month, Dr. Mary Ann Donnelly-DeBay, a child psychologist in the Winooski School District, offers tips for handling those awkward situations.
KIDS VT: When should parents begin talking with their kids about sexual reproduction?
MARY ANN DONNELLY-DEBAY: The idea is to start this conversation from the get-go. We know some kids fondle themselves in utero. When a boy's diaper is being changed, an older sibling might see an erection and ask about it, or see mommy's breasts and ask, "What are those?" Their curiosity starts very early.
KVT: What should parents do if they discover their 4- or 5-year-old undressing with a friend?
MADD: That's pretty normal behavior at 4 and 5. When they get to school, they realize that some things are private. So, if you've got a 10-year-old running down the street naked, that's a lot different from having a 5-year-old who's doing it. As kids mature, they pick up cues from adults.
KVT: Should adults interrupt such play?
MADD: It depends on the age of the child and the nature of the play. It's important for parents and caregivers to react positively to children's consensual sexual play. But if you're thinking, This is more than I would expect from a kid this age, it's worth talking to a pediatrician. If you walk in on two 5-year-olds playing doctor, they'd be exploring their bodies in a very normal and innocent way.
Healthy sex play is always noncoercive, mutual and between children of similar ages. When the ages between the children become greater, there are potential issues of exploitation because the older child is in a position to manipulate the younger child.
KVT: What if a parent discovers a child masturbating?
MADD: Some young children fondle themselves because their anxiety levels are high and it relieves their stress. If they're masturbating more often than you would expect, it might be worth talking with them about finding another way to relieve their anxiety.
Sometimes, kids exhibit overly sexualized behavior for their age if they've seen pornographic material or seen adults engaging in sex acts. In that case, a parent would want to intervene — not by telling them, "Your eyes will fall out," but by stopping and redirecting the behavior in the moment. Then the parent should talk to the child's health care provider.
KVT: Any advice for parents who find talking about such topics uncomfortable?
MADD: Read. One book I love, which is great for younger kids, is called It's So Amazing: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families. A terrific book for older kids is It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health.
KVT: Do you recommend using anatomically correct terms?
MADD: Absolutely. When a child of 2 or 3 asks, "What's that?" give them the correct term. It will help you later on, when you're educating them about keeping their bodies safe and not letting other people touch them. Kids who can't even describe their own body parts have a much harder time understanding this stuff. It's never too late to start these conversations, but the longer you wait, the more difficult it is to begin.
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