How do I handle uncomfortable sex play with young children?

How should we respond when we find our dear little one playing doctor in the basement, or peeing together with four other little boys in a secluded spot in the backyard, or negotiating “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” in her bedroom with the child from next door?

The single most important principle is to not exaggerate the importance of the incident, but instead to use it as a teaching opportunity about the privacy of your child’s body and what a blessed gift and miracle that body is. If you handle such an incident in a calm, positive, and reasonable fashion, it can be a constructive experience. If you overreact, you run the danger of instilling in your children a deep sense of guilt or the sense that sexual interests and feelings are bad, and of pushing them away from you when they have questions or concerns about sexuality. You also risk encouraging a misplaced curiosity about this forbidden and dark aspect of life.

A healthy response to instances like those described above will incorporate the following elements:

1. God’s gift is good. Reaffirm the goodness of the child’s body as God’s special creation and gift.

2. God’s gift is private. Use the opportunity to teach the child that because of the special nature of God’s gift of sex, the body, especially her sexual organs, is meant to be private. God created sexual organs for a special purpose, and not for play toys with other kids! (See the discussion on privacy in Chapter 8.)

3. Curiosity is good. Affirm the goodness of your child’s curiosity. We might say, “I understand exactly why you are interested in other people’s bodies and why they’re interested in yours. We all know inside that those parts are special, and we want to know about special things. It’s like wanting to unwrap a Christmas present before Christmas! It’s just natural to feel that way. And it’s also natural to want to know more about private things; it makes us feel grown up to know about private things.”

4. Set boundaries. Set clear boundaries and expectations. To continue the hypothetical monologue above, “But even though it is a fine thing to be curious, I don’t want you to show your penis (vagina, privates) to other kids. And I don’t want you to ask to see theirs. If you keep those parts of you private and special, it will help you to always feel that God made you in an especially wonderful way.”