By Debra W Haffner, with Dr Robert Needlman
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Boy playing doctor copyright iStock/BanksPhotos
Playing doctor, undressing in front of another child, and looking at each other’s genitals – this is all pretty common during the preschool and early school years.

As many as half of all adults remember engaging in childhood sexual play with others. It happens between boys and girls, boys and boys, girls and girls, neighbours and siblings – and it tells you nothing about future sexual orientation or adult sexual health.

Normal curiosity

Children this age are very curious about bodies – their own and other people’s. They’re trying on roles and behaviour, and might be mimicking adults as they play doctor or marriage. This combination of natural curiosity and role-playing sometimes leads to childhood sex play. It might lead to touching, and children discover that this type of touching feels good. Overall, this type of play is expected and harmless.

Handling the situation with understanding and tact

So what do you do if you walk in on your child when he’s engaged in this type of behaviour with another boy or girl?

First, take a deep breath and stop looking through adult eyes – your child isn’t having sex with the four-year-old next door! Most likely he’s just curious about how their bodies are different, and vice versa.

Second, let your values guide you to an appropriate, calm response. Some parents choose to ignore this type of play and simply close the door, knowing it will pass. Others are uncomfortable having this type of play in their home. They might calmly ask the children to stop, get dressed and play in the living room or family room, rather than a room with a closed door.

An opportunity for an important lesson

Afterwards, when you’re alone with your child, you can use your discovery as a teaching opportunity. You can say, ‘I know you’re curious about bodies. But there are other ways to learn besides looking at other kids – I have a book we can look at together’. If you don’t happen to have the perfect book on hand, take a trip together to the library, and ask the librarian to help you find one.

You can also use this as a chance to share your values with your child. For example, ‘Your body belongs only to you, and your friend’s body belongs only to her. We think it’s better for children to play with their clothes on’.

Screaming or overreacting when you come across your child taking part in sex play might cause her to feel shame or guilt about her sexual curiosity. Try to keep calm and remember that this is normal behaviour.

Warning signs

There’s a big difference between this type of harmless sexual play and play that is exploitative or abusive. Children don’t naturally engage in painful sexual behaviour, oral-genital contact, simulated or real intercourse, or penetration with fingers or other objects. Nor do most children engage in healthy sexual play with a child who is more than a few years older or younger than they are. These types of activities could come from exposure to inappropriate adult entertainment, or could signal that a child has been sexually abused.

If your child is engaging in any of these types of behaviour, it’s a good idea to talk with your GP, a paediatrician or another qualified health professional.