Dear Patrick: I am a single mother. My daughter is nine. She asks me questions about where babies come from, how people have sex, etc. These questions are coming up on a daily basis. I have given her answers, even bought her a book about sex written for children her age. But she still asks me. She uses sexual language including terms that I certainly did not know when I was her age. She likes to dress up and strike provocative poses, then she asks me to take “pretend photographs” of her. Recently a friend of mine, who has a son the same age, complained that my daughter had encouraged her child to remove his clothing. The kids tried to explain that they were playing some kind of game, but she was too upset to ask them any questions about it. Maybe they were just playing doctor, and that's normal, isn't it? She is really angry at me because I apparently wasn't angry enough and I would not promise her that I was going to punish my daughter. I don't believe in punishing children anyway. It only hurts and confuses them, it doesn't help them to behave better. Now she doesn't want my daughter to see her son, which is causing all kinds of problems because they were very good friends.
I am afraid my daughter has been abused or molested and learned to see herself as a sex object. But I am afraid to talk to anybody about this for fear they will report me to the authorities. I don't want a big investigation that will scare my child, and I don't want her to be taken away from me. I just want to find out what is going on and protect her.
I managed to get some time away from work so I could go to a pay phone and call a local crisis hotline. The woman I spoke with was very nice, but she used a phrase I did not understand--”age-appropriate sex exploration.” She said this was what had happened between my daughter and her little friend. What exactly is age-appropriate sex exploration? What is normal or healthy for children to do at different ages?
It seems to me that your letter includes three urgent questions. (1) What is age-appropriate sex play for children? (2) How can you tell if your child has been sexually abused? And (3) What do you do if the answer may be yes? I'm going to try to address these topics in that order.
Question (1) seems like a simple question, but in fact it is not easy to answer. The federal government of the United States has cancelled several research projects centered on the sexuality of minors. Children are naturally secretive about doing anything they fear adults will stop, so many parents would no doubt tell you that what is normal for children is NO sexual behavior. To add to the difficulty, we have the fact that “normal” sexual behavior varies a great deal among adults. There is no reason to believe it would not vary, as well, for minors.
What we do know is that children are curious about their own bodies and about how the world works. They see how adults behave, and it's often mysterious to them. They feel anxiety about their own process of maturation. How will they change? What do they need to know to be successful at this complicated task of being human? Where did they come from? Where did that new baby come from? Will they ever have babies? How? Why? When?
Some children trust their parents enough to ask these questions, and other kids do not. Since their brains are still developing, children do not have the same profile for memory that adults do. They tend to remember things that adults would not find important, and forget things that adults might value highly. So it's not surprising that your daughter repeatedly asks you about sex and reproduction. If she realizes that these questions annoy or worry you, she's going to ask them even more often. You should feel free to occasionally tell her, “We talked about that yesterday. I don't feel like talking about it right now. You can ask me again tomorrow.” This could lead to a helpful conversation about something else (i.e., setting boundaries).
We do know that childish curiosity will sometimes lead to nudity. A child may want to investigate their own body, or the bodies of other children. “Playing doctor” is often an excuse for getting a naughty glimpse of somebody else's bottom. Of course, there is also the thrill of doing something forbidden. A fascination with identifying and transgressing upon taboos (whether that means pulling down somebody's pants or eating too much jam) begins long before puberty.
For the youngest children, sex play usually doesn't go beyond partial or full nudity. As children age, they may want to “play a game,” i.e., pretend to be a doctor and a patient, or pretend to be dancers, or have one child play the part of a baby while the other is a parent. The only limit here is the imagination. It's important to talk to children about the importance of respecting their playmates' use of the word “no” and avoiding any activity that will cause someone else pain. It is not okay for two children to make a third child do something that child doesn't want to do, even if that's as innocuous as jumping rope. This is how parents can introduce and reinforce the concept of consent.
The term “age-appropriate sex play” is affected by the fact that puberty is taking place at earlier and earlier ages. Girls used to menstruate at the age of 16. That has fallen back to 13 and now even 10 is not rare. A child who is going through puberty may experience stronger genital sensations, more fully formed sexual fantasies, and a drive to touch or be touched in an erotic fashion. I believe that an earlier age of puberty is causing children to engage in conduct that older generations might have found shocking. But it's simply the product of hormones. Your daughter may be experiencing something of this nature. A trip to her pediatrician to check her hormone levels might be a good idea.
So far, your friend has not reported any harmful conduct. Your daughter may not be old enough to understand the sexual significance of male and female. Some children play the same games with boy and girl friends until they reach an age where puberty polarizes the sexes. Your friend might have over-interpreted the sexual implications of the play that she interrupted because there was a boy child and a girl child rather than two little girls. If your daughter looked like an aggressor, this might have also been more shocking to her, since that is perceived as inappropriate; not-feminine. But in reality, imaginative little girls with good self-esteem readily assume leadership in all games, and do not necessarily take a submissive role.
During play, children do not usually engage in sex acts unless they have seen that behavior modeled by adults. Unfortunately, this is not a good indicator of sex abuse, because nowadays, they can see sexualized positions in a music video or a soap opera. A child may not be aware of just how controversial a dance move or a dramatic situation really is. Children are more likely to use their hands to explore their own or others' bodies, and much less likely to engage in oral stimulation or an attempt at penetration. But I would not necessarily view such conduct as pathological or as firm, unshakeable evidence of molestation. It would make me feel that the possibility ought to be explored.
The best way to proceed is to open communication. A child won't be honest if they are afraid you will get angry. So you need to have a carefully neutral tone of voice, and keep your promise that they are not in trouble. For example, if you wanted more information about the controversy with her best friend, you could say, “You know, ____'s mom was upset when she saw the two of you playing. I don't think she understood what you were doing.” Wait for a comment, then say, “Would you feel okay telling me what you were doing?” You can ask questions like, “Where did you see that? Where did you hear about that? Did somebody show you how to do that? Did you read about that?” Gently inquire about the source of her information or inspiration. Do be cautious because, as I said above, children's memories can fluctuate. If she got scared by your friend's reaction, she might have already suppressed what happened because it is coded as dangerous now, and so forbidden that adults will lose their cool over it. She has already been separated from her good friend, and she doesn't understand why, so she will be careful about what she tells you, lest additional punishment befall her.
The same thing applies to telling you where she saw or heard about things that alarm you. When a child is sworn to secrecy, they can be frightened to reveal that. You can ask if she was told to keep something a secret. Then explain that you want to keep a secret unless somebody might get hurt. It is okay to tell you the secret, and you will decide if somebody might get hurt or not. If nobody will get hurt, it can stay a secret. No matter what happens, she won't be in trouble. Adults can sometimes do bad things and then ask children to keep a secret, and that's not okay. But the adult will never be told about her. She will be kept safe.
It is difficult for a medical examiner to determine whether a child has been sexually abused, unless there is gross harm to his or her body. The presence of a sexually-transmitted disease would be ironclad proof of abuse, of course. Adults want 100% certainty about such an important matter, and I wish that was always possible. I think a careful, low key conversation with your daughter is the best place to start. Then you can decide if she needs to see a doctor. If so, she ought to be reassured that the doctor is not there to punish her. And there should be a reward for allowing the exam and answering any questions. But be careful to keep your questions open-ended.
Here's why. Suppose I sit down with a child who likes and trusts me, and say, “I just know there are dragons. I thought I saw a dragon the other day. Do you know what dragons look like? Have you ever seen one?” What are the chances of a child under the age of 9 saying, “There's no such thing. You're crazy.”? The child is most probably going to conjure up a dragon. And by the time we are done talking about it, they will be convinced of the reality of that dragon and may remember seeing it until they are old enough to get married. If I say, “I think somebody hurt you. Who hurt you, honey?”, the child may try to please me by picking out a name.
After you have talked to your daughter, sit down and make a list of all the adults who have contact with her. Don't assume that women are innocent and men are guilty. While most accused child molesters are men, there are female perpetrators who harm children. Think about anyone who has the opportunity to be alone with her. Then decide whether you want to simply cut that person out of her life, or try to find out more about their relationship. I think that all parents should pay surprise visits to school or daycare. Never assume that a religious organization or an established charity will be a safe place for your child. Many such organizations do not do background checks on their volunteers or even their employees. And it is notoriously difficult for civilians to get accurate information from criminal data bases. There is also a problem with some data bases containing the names of innocent persons and other inaccuracies.
The best defense a child can have is a loving parent who is safe to tell everything to. The older your child gets, the more information they can be given about the sad fact that there are a very few adults out there who might hurt them. If self-defense classes are available, let her take them. But always let her know that if anything bad happens, it is not her fault, and she should tell you. Even if she thinks something is her fault, she can tell you. Because if she made a mistake, that's okay, we all make mistakes. You will help her to figure out if it is her fault or not, and you will help her to figure out how to fix it.
The children who are at most risk of being abused are the ones who are told that sex is bad and wrong. A child who is punished for masturbating or for asking questions about sex learns that it is a forbidden topic. An adult who offers secrets about sex then becomes more of a temptation. Any transgression becomes their fault, in the child's eyes, and they will not seek help from adult protectors. A child is capable of understanding that they have a right to be safe, and that adults do not have license to do anything they want to do with their bodies. I believe, for example, that a child who knows spanking is not okay will have an easier time understanding that sexual abuse is not okay. If you have a right to some individual boundaries and preferences, you can more easily say “no” to a predator, or escape from them.
Chances are that nothing bad has happened to your child. The statistics of child abuse rates are, in my opinion, inflated. It is a terrible crime, however, and even one incident of harm is far, far too much. Most of the children who are abused or sexually assaulted are, sadly, harmed by their parents. Stranger abuse is relatively rare. But if you fear that someone is harming your daughter, feel free to get her in a different school or daycare, or cut off visiting privileges to somebody else's home. Trauma can be prevented by loving and vigilant parents. You just don't want to become so vigilant that you see potential harm under every parked car. It's a very difficult balance to achieve.
I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to write again if you have additional questions.