Hey sex fans,
I know I promised you a Q&A podcast for today, but I’m afraid I must disappoint. I’ve been experiencing technical difficulties all weekend long, so this charming exchange between me and a nervous mother will have to satisfy you till I can pull together the next podcast…this coming Wednesday, 12/05/12, I hope.
My husband and I are having a little problem with our 5-year-old son. He’s very bright and inquisitive and we encourage that in him. However, we’ve caught him playing doctor with playmates, twice in two months. Once with a 4 year old neighbor girl and most recently, a 6-year-old boy from his school. How do we handle this? We don’t want to stifle his inquisitive nature, nor do we want to send him the message that sex is bad or dirty. We weren’t raised like that and we don’t want to raise our son like that either. At the same time, he can’t continue to do this. If other parents discover this, there could be trouble. What do you think? Thanks.
Ya gotta love the curiosity and innocence of children, but I certainly understand your concern.
Reading your message took me back to one of my earliest memories. I must have been about the same age as your son at the time. A neighborhood boy, who was slightly younger than me, and I were playing in a vacant lot near our homes. We made a little fort in the tall grass. And there, out of the blue, I suggested that he, the neighbor boy, pull down his pants so that I could take his temperature with this little stick I was holding. He was perfectly compliant and, like it was an everyday thing, he bent over and I stuck the twig in his bum. I remember taking careful note of his little peepee in the process. He had one, just like me, which was a totally different configuration than my baby sisters. I had taken note of that when I watched my mother change their diapers. I remember thinking to myself, my god that is so weird. But I digress. The gist of the story is that I was a very inquisitive lad, just like your son. And the opportunity check out the neighbor kid was, just that…an opportunity to satisfy my curiosity.
A couple days later, pretty much out of the blue, my dad took me aside for a little chat. He asked me about my play with the neighbor kid. I wasn’t quite sure what he was referring to. Ya see the “doctor” incident didn’t register with me as particularly significant, or all the memorable. It just was what it was. But it sure did register with a nosy neighbor lady who witnessed the whole thing. Apparently she told my mother, my mother told my father and now he was telling me. You have to remember, this was the mid-1950s, so sexual experimentation at any age was a lot more taboo than it is today, or even when you and your hubby were kids.
To my father’s credit he wasn’t hysterical, but he was very firm. I got the unambiguous message that this sort of behavior was not OK. It’s funny, had no one seen me and the neighborhood kid in our innocent play, the incident wouldn’t have registered with me at all. I probably had the same level of interest in the kid as I would have seeing an interesting bug, or catching a glimpse of a rabbit or raccoon. It filled the moment, and then it was gone.
Like I said, despite my father’s mild manner, I did get the clear message that what I did crossed some line, a line that I didn’t even know existed beforehand. My father’s talk managed to instill a sense of shame where there was none before. And I remember realizing that my behavior wasn’t just wrong, like if I had hit someone, but it bad, like sinful. And even at that age, I understood to some degree what sin was. I had visions of Jesus and his blessed mother up in heaven crying their little hearts out over my indiscretion. So now, along with the shame I began to feel guilt.
Of course, even if my “doctor” play hadn’t been discovered at age 5 there certainly were dozens of subsequent opportunities for me to get the hardball message that sex was dirty and sinful — not just touching but even dwelling on the subject was enough to send one to hell. There simply was no escaping that fifty some years ago. Are things fundamentally different today? Probably not fundamentally! There are, no doubt, more parents these days who, like yourselves, are more enlightened than when I was a kid. But let’s face it; the predominant culture is still very sex-negative.
One of the biggest mistakes parents make when they are faced with the kind of situation you refer to, Nora, is they impose adult motivations onto their kid’s behavior. For the most part, young children don’t have a sense of shame about their bodies, nor do they have a highly developed sense of the personal space of another person. When their curiosity about their body and the bodies of others, both children and adults, turns to touching and exploration, it has no sexual connotation like we grown-ups understand.
Some years ago, I said much the same thing at a church sponsored workshop for parents. A mother in the audience stood up to tell me that I was all wet about this. She said she knew for sure that her pre-adolescent son had a sense of guilt about fondling himself, because when she caught him doing it one day he looked very guilty. Well, duh! But when we discussed the occurrence further, we were able to discover the truth. I asked her, to describe the situation. She said, “I happened to see my son, through the partially open door to his room. It was just after his bath. He was sitting on his bed touching himself impurely.” I had to chuckle at her vocabulary, but I asked her to proceed with her story. She said, “naturally, I threw open the door and said; ‘what in the world are you doing?’” I said, in a somewhat mocking tone; “Yes, naturally!”
I wasn’t hard to imagine the scene she was describing, because she was pretty agitated by just retelling the story. I could visualize the bedroom door flying open, her stomping into the room, hands on her hips, eyes glaring, nostrils flared, her voice pitched high. What she saw in her young son’s face was not shame; it was fright. I told her that she was the cause of the panic in his face. I explained that if she had barged in to his room that way, with her threatening body language and her “what in the world” screech while he was on his knees saying his bedtime prayers, the kid would have had the same look of alarm, which she interpreted as guilt. I also confronted the woman about the issue of privacy. Listen parents, even young children need and deserve their privacy. You don’t want to see embarrassing things? Avoid the temptation to walk in on your kids without knocking first.
The reason I tell you all of this, Nora, is I want you to realize that the way you address your son’s behavior is probably more important than what you actually tell him. If you approach the discussion all worried, or distressed, or alarmed, or agitated; you can be assured that your body language will tell him all he needs to know, even before you speak your first word.
If your son’s behavior doesn’t course correct all by itself, which it probably will, my advice is schedule a little family meeting. The key here is that you’ll want to talk about several things besides the bothersome behavior. You might bring up school, putting away his toys, playing doctor with the neighbors, and helping with some of the household chores. You’ll notice that the more difficult subject is couched between more mundane concerns. This will help keep the sexual issue properly situated…as part of everyday life.
When you ask him about his “doctor” play, and if you do it in a casual sort of way, he will probably tell you all about it as if he were telling you about his other play. My guess is he is not yet made the distinction between types of play. You might ask him why he’s playing this particular game. Maybe even ask him what he discovered, if anything. Once this part is over and you have some information about his motivation, you could add your perspective…the adult perspective. Here’s where you get to explain that some parts of our bodies are private. And now that he’s getting bigger he needs to understand the difference between public and private. You could make the distinction between bad and inappropriate — his play is not bad, just out of place. I’d be willing to guess that he already has a grasp on this concept.
You may not even have to tell him not to do it again. You could tell him that if he thinks he wants to play “doctor” again, he should ask for your permission. In the same way he would have to ask your permission to cross a busy street or stay at a friends house for lunch.
If after the family meeting you think you and your husband didn’t get it precisely right, just let it go. If the behavior continues you’ll have another opportunity to get it right. Here’s a tip, if you guys casually talk about body things, like personal hygiene…particularly if your son is uncut…on a regular basis you’ll have a foundation on which to build more complicated sex related discussions in the future.
Finally, keep all sex related talks firmly grounded in every day life. One good way of doing that is use examples from nature and apply it to human behavior.
Hey dr dick! What’s that toll-free podcast voicemail telephone number? Why, it’s: (866) 422-5680. DON’T BE SHY, LET IT FLY!