Why do children like to play doctor? I guess a parent could ask, why do children like to play fireman or policeman or ballerina or dentist? And they do! The fact that playing doctor often makes a parent anxious is because, for the parent, it has a sexual implication. Children also play doctor by bandaging fingers and knees and pretending to give medicine and injections; but this is often not the usual association we have to children playing doctor. What parents think about is children examining each other’s bodies, pulling down pants or lifting skirts and peeking at genitals. Sometimes it means using a pretend rectal thermometer.
Children often play this form of doctor game because they have a good deal of curiosity about the human body and sexual differences. They are curious about everything in their growing world of experience; but even at a very young age, they sense some mystery about the way they are made. Often they get better answers to their questions about almost everything else than they do about sexual differences. Examining each other is one way of trying to find some answers. Almost everyone remembers playing doctor, even though it occurs so early in life.
Today, sex (and nudity) is everywhere. Even very young children are exposed to sexual matters on TV, in the movies, on the Internet, and as a subject of lively discussion at the dinner table and among nannies on the park bench.
A parent’s dilemma is greater than ever as to how to deal with their children’s questions. But the real dilemma is their own confusion and their own curiosity. True, today’s parents are more knowledgeable and hopefully more comfortable about sexual matters than their own parents were, but a whole new world of sexual experience opens up every day.
How to react to it? How to make sense of it? How to incorporate it into one’s own value system? How not to be too turned off by it or too turned on? It may take some time for adults – parents – to integrate this explosion of sexual matters and to help young children cope with what they see and hear from every direction; but in the meantime, my guess is that playing doctor may get a lot more interesting.