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In just one day I got THREE emails from worried parents dealing with sexuality issues in children. One was from a grandmother about coercive oral sex between her 9-year-old grandson and his 2-year-old sister. The next about a boy telling his same-age cousin to rub his penis and then kiss it. The third was from a mom who saw a nude photo of her 14-year-old daughter on the digital camera.

The first question was the most troubling but actually the easiest to answer. I wrote back at once that this is abnormal and predatory behavior and the parents should be very concerned. The vast age difference and the forcing makes this very different from preschoolers “playing doctor” and makes it an issue that must be dealt with immediately. The parents must ask the boy’s doctor for an evaluation by a child psychiatrist. And the children must not be left alone together for even a second.

Here is the second question edited for brevity: “About a year ago, my 4-year-old nephew told my 5-year-old daughter that you first rub his penis then you kiss it. I calmly spoke to them about good touch/bad touch but when I spoke to the mom about my concerns she told me she wasn’t going to make a big deal about this and that it was my issue not hers. I never accused anyone of anything. I was just concerned about my nephew and my own daughters. Now my brother will not allow his sons at my house without him and I no longer speak to their mom (her choice).”

I responded that classical playing doctor was “I’ll show you mine if–” followed by inspecting and maybe rubbing. But kids are sexualized so early these days by the media (even if you are careful about what your children watch other parents may not be). So they know the word penis and may know adults kiss it. Thus “playing doctor” today is different although it still happens because young children still have curiosity about their own genitals and sexuality.

This mother was right to talk to the tots. I wrote, “I would have used a slightly different approach and said this part of your body is private instead of using the words “good” and “bad” as there was nothing predatory about this incident which was between same-age children. The child’s mother should reinforce this with her son without getting angry at you or her son and without sounding critical. I agree with your telling the mother just as you would tell the mother if the 4 year-old hit your daughter and violence not sex was involved. This incident was not worth having a family feud over. You told the mother thinking she would want to know (I would want to know). She elected not to make a big deal out of it. Her decision. End of story. Call her up and invite her to lunch and tell her what I said.”

The third question: “I was taking pictures on my digital camera and ran out of memory room on my card so the camera asked me if I’d like to store them directly on the camera. When I was reviewing the pictures I found myself looking at naked pictures of my 14 year old daughter. Apparently she had taken these pictures of herself when no one else was home. I have no idea how to handle this situation. Do I confront her? Do I talk to my husband first? I don’t have any idea why she’d be taking pictures of herself like this….is it natural curiosity? With kids and the internet these days I’m almost afraid to consider what may be going on – is she sending these pictures to boys or even total strangers on the internet? I know I have to talk to her about this, I’m just not sure what’s the best way to go about doing it. I know it sounds stupid, but I just want to cry because I have no idea why she’d do it or what’s the best way to talk to her about it. I never imagined I’d have to deal with anything like this.”

When I was raising my own teens I suppose taking nude pictures of each other or themselves could have happened but it was an unimaginable issue way below my radar. So the first thing I told this rattled mother was that I am glad I am not parenting teens today.

“Teens are obsessed with their body especially compared to their peers. Am I normal? Am I beautiful? They are also exposed to nakedness on TV or the internet so to them it is no big deal. What you don’t want to happen is for her to show herself nude on You Tube or something similar.

“I would talk to her girl-to-girl. ’I found these pictures by accident, I was not snooping. I would never have done this when I was 14 but then again I didn’t have a digital camera so you have to help me out here. Tell me, is this what everybody is doing? What are you going to do with the pictures now?’ Be calm and friendly, not accusatory because she has not committed a crime, just an indiscretion. Remind her she would be embarrassed if her Dad had seen these. Tell her you expect her to keep the pictures to herself and not show them to anyone. Maybe she will say she just wanted to see how she looked through the lens.

“Of course tell your husband about this but unless you DO have to discipline her (she tells you the pics are on their way to a modeling agency, for example) start with a girl-to-girl talk.”

Interestingly enough I dealt with cases like the predatory 9-year-old back in the olden days. Almost always such a child has been sexually abused and we were aware of that. However the updated version of “playing doctor” and the nude photos are what we can call 21st century sexuality. They occur because the media shows nudity and talks about things like oral sex even if it is not shown. And it is almost impossible for parents to prevent their kids from media exposure.

Without condoning our early and over-sexualized society or the lack of good taste on the part of the media, I want to reassure parents about overhearing a preschooler talk about kissing the penis or coming across nude photos of your teen-aged daughter. Neither incident in and of itself is the end of the world. Both deal with curiosity in a hyper-sexualized culture.

If you encounter any similar incidents: 1) take a deep breath, 2) think before you react, 3) speak calmly to the children involved. If you can’t figure out how to handle a given incident write to me at and I’ll try to help you sort it out.