You arranged a playdate for your four-year-old son and your friend’s little girl, and everything is going smoothly until it gets a little too quiet in the family room. When you check, you find them both naked and looking over each other’s bodies with undisguised interest.
“Parents sometimes panic in these situations,” says sex educator Meg Hickling, author of Speaking of Sex: What Your Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It. “They think they’ve given birth to a pedophile. But it’s absolutely normal behaviour — it’s natural curiosity.”
It doesn’t just happen with kids of opposite genders. Margaret Hill* finds her two sons (ages four and two) are quite interested in learning more about the usually-hidden parts of each other’s anatomy. “When they are in the bath together, one will reach over and grab the other’s penis. It’s more of a joke or playing than anything else, and they seem to find it quite funny. I try to use it as a teaching situation and tell them ‘You aren’t allowed to touch anyone else’s penis, and no one is allowed to touch yours.’”
There’s definitely more potential for awkwardness when your child is “playing doctor” with a friend, rather than a sibling, though. Hickling suggests these following steps for responding to the situation:
Stay calm. “If you discover the children undressed or checking each other out, just say ‘We don’t show our bodies, or our “privates,” (if you want to use that word), to other people. Put on your clothes and come to the kitchen and I’ll make you a snack,’” Hickling says.
Talk to your child privately. After the other child has gone home, Hickling recommends sitting down with your child and saying, “The rules are that we don’t look at or touch other people’s private parts.” Keep it matter-of-fact and don’t get angry — your child hasn’t done anything bad. If your child says that it was the other child’s idea, just ask him to come and tell you next time that happens, so that you can find them some other game to play.
Tell the other child’s parents what happened and how you responded. “Again, just tell them in a calm way, and let them know you’ve told your child what the rules are,” says Hickling. This is better than having the visitor tell her parents the four-year-old version of the incident.
Find other ways to satisfy your child’s curiosity. Hickling suggests reading your child some of the illustrated books about anatomy written for young children. There are also plenty of natural opportunities for children to see each other’s bodies with some adult supervision: during shared bathtimes, while changing clothes at the swimming pool, using the toilet, etc.
If their younger sibling is still in diapers, that can be another opportunity for older ones to learn basic anatomy. Wendy Barr* says her five-year-old daughter Isabelle is quite interested in seeing her baby brother’s genitals when Barr is changing diapers. “She asked a lot of questions about why boys have penises and girls don’t. I explained that the differences are so we can make babies, and how the penis goes into the vagina so the sperm can find the egg and make a baby. She says she definitely doesn’t want to have any babies, then.”
Isabelle may change her mind about that later. Meanwhile, though, Hickling says Barr’s straightforward answers are just what any preschooler needs: the information she desires and the reassurance that you are the person to go to next time she has a question.
*Name changed by request.