What Do I Do About Kids Playing Doctor?
By Glenn E. Jennings, M.D.
A : You have aptly realized one of the desperations of parenthood. Determining what really happened in the minds and bodies of the children is challenging, but it is important to not gloss over the situation.
Addressing your son's "no big deal" response to your attempted communication about the situation is very important. From the scene you witnessed, was your sense that this was "sexual" play or really "doctor" play? It is normal for children to have a certain amount of curiosity about their bodies and their development. However, you must be acutely aware of all the dynamics and what is really happening here. It is up to you to determine just how to do this.
To determine what is really going on, scan your mind for any similar past experiences — even those that appear to be unrelated. For example, there may have been ethical debates over situations such as your child getting too much help on a school assignment, smoking a cigarette or bumping the next car when opening the car door at the mall. Mainstream public education and the media now confuse many parents and often offer disrespectful and careless precedents and examples. And, if it is important to you as parents, don't disregard your own spiritual beliefs when formulating a plan to address the current situation. Determining whether a behavior is right or wrong requires an ethical decision that is based on the moral or religious values of the family.
Take into account the age, maturity, past behavior and attitude of the child, as well as the ages of the other children, when examining the sexuality of the situation, the cover-up process and your own parental response. Your son's attitude of "no big deal" may ultimately be the problem to be answered. However, understanding what happened in the partially witnessed event remains essential to your parental obligation to protect the children, inform the other parents and maintain the law and the community's interpretation. In this particular situation, it seems unlikely that you would need a counselor, and from the information you have given, there is no reasonable suspicion of sexual harassment or assault that would suggest any involvement of child protective services.
So, the immediate response is left up to you and your husband. You have the opportunity to have a major role in shaping the beliefs, relations, motivation, contentment and future actions of your child. He will always carry with him the way you and your husband reacted to this situation, even if it is in a partially forgotten and revised memory form.
Talk to your child and explain what is right and wrong in the actions, attitudes and associations involved in the "playing doctor" activity. For example, explain that while "taking a temperature" or "bandaging an arm" is OK, removing clothing and looking at another child's genitals is wrong because those are areas that are private. Talk to your child about his "no big deal" attitude, which can be destructive to family relations. Help your child to move on from this incident by showing genuine parental love and concern.
By addressing the situation in a positive way, you hope to endow your child with the understanding and confidence to not always do what others want (whether good or bad), as well as the ability to protect himself and his friends as he would a sister or brother. He can then pretend and play as if he were a doctor all would respect.
By addressing the situation in this way, you provide your son with a "no," an expectation for change of behavior and attitude and an affirmation that your love and respect accompanies your discipline.
In the mid-elementary years, the explanation of forbidding an activity or attitude is best kept practical and authoritatively truthful. The consequences for discipline should optimally be those offering the greater facilitation of learning. The recognition of and comfort with the expression of love in the family should be modeled with appropriate physical and verbal affection. With your involvement and guidance, your son can now rightfully play, seeing himself as a doctor, teacher, pilot, etc. or as one of the many other participants in our society.
Please submit your questions to "Is My Kid OK?" via e-mail to Sherri.McMillen@mosescone.com. Glenn E. Jennings, M.D., is the Medical Director of Child and Adolescent Inpatient Services.