When Is
'Playing Doctor' Okay?
By Elaine Moyle and Cathy Stapells
The Toronto Sun
    "Playing doctor" is something most young children do as an exercise in understanding their bodies and the differences between boys and girls.
    However, sexual allegations involving 11-year-old Raoul Wutrich and his five-year-old sister Sophia in Colorado raises questions for parents as to when innocent touching between children crosses the line into potential sexual abuse. (He allegedly touched and kissed his sister's genitals.)
    Children are sexually curious beings and it can lead to kids "checking out each other's plumbing," says Mary Gordon, parenting administrator with the Toronto District School Board.
    She assures parents this is normal, noting that inquisitiveness begins in babies, re-emerges when potty-training occurs and peaks at around age six.
    More importantly, she says, "Children need to know about good touching and bad touching. If something doesn't feel right to them, they must have the confidence to be able to say 'no' and walk away."
    Children should never be forced to touch, hug or kiss anyone, even a relative such as an aunt, uncle or grandparent.
    'Right to decide'
    "Teach children to shake hands in order to be polite. Don't force them to kiss. They need to know they have the right to decide," says Kathy Lynn, parenting educator with a Vancouver-based firm called Parenting Today.
    Although six is usually the age when playing doctor ends, it depends on the child's age, stage, gender and development.
    "Sexual maturity comes at different ages and many children are ready biologically before they are ready cognitively and socially. Then it becomes a question of values and morality," says Gary Freeman, a child psychologist at North York General Hospital. "A child may be biologically ready for sex at 12, but that doesn't mean it's appropriate for them to be having sex at that age."
    Age gap
    What concerns child-care experts about the case in Colorado is the six-year age gap between the children.
    "This kind of behaviour is more common in younger kids closer in age. Six years could reflect coercive behaviour," says Miriam Kaufman, a pediatrician at The Hospital For Sick Children.
    A large age gap creates a power inbalance "that can be terrifying for a child who can't articulate they're uncomfortable with something or know how to stop it," says Freeman.
    Without worrying their children are perverted, it is up to parents to monitor their child's play.
    "So much comes down to our judgment, which is why so many of us lie in bed at night and worry about the choices we've made," says Kaufman.
    A Toronto mom says she rarely allows her six-year-old daughter to go to other people's homes alone after catching a nephew, who was two years older and had removed his clothing, playing doctor with her daughter.
    "I have no idea what goes on behind closed doors," she says. "What if mom is busy downstairs or in the garden and the children are left unsupervised inside? The potential for abuse is there, especially if your child is young and vulnerable and there are older children in the house."
    If you do catch kids in the act, remain calm. Gordon suggests parents respond in a straight-forward manner: "We don't show our bodies to people like that. Our bodies are private."
    If they've shed their clothes, instruct children to put them back on, explaining, "We wear clothes in our house."
    Children should be advised not to touch other people's private parts and not to insert objects in body orifices.
    "Just as kids place things in their ears, bums and noses, they'll also insert objects into their vaginas," she says.
    "It doesn't mean the child is disturbed -- she's simply curious."
    It's up to parents to help children develop a healthy attitude toward their bodies.
    "You can't blame kids for being sexually stimulated because it's all around them. We all share the responsibility for childhood sexuality," says Freeman.
    Meanwhile, local doctors are critical of the way Colorado's Raoul has been treated (dragged from his bed at 10:30 p.m., shackled and jailed), saying the child needs counselling, not incarceration.
    Raoul did not commit "a criminal act with malicious intent," says Diane Sacks, a pediatrician at North York General Hospital's adolescent clinic. "This is not spontaneous behaviour on the part of an 11-year-old boy. He has either experienced it or seen it. At this point, he needs intervention as well as investigation to see if he has been a victim."