Question: My just 6 year-old has a friend that is 8. they have been playing together for over a year. The 8 year-old is delayed emotionally so it seems that the two are equal. Recently I’ve discovered that they were playing together in a sort of sexual way, (tickling in private areas). I was very upset and limited their play to only supervised and I’m not allowing them to sit together on the bus, (one episode happened on the bus). I have discussed this with the 8 year-old’s mother and she was supportive of whatever I decided to do, but she was not going to make a big deal of it. Did I handle this correctly? I told my son that no one is allowed to touch him in his private area. Laura
Answer: It must have been a frightening moment when you discovered that your child had been touched on his private parts. These days parent’s fears are heightened by media stories about victimized children. I think that whenever a parental decision involves heightened emotions as this one can, parents do well to take a moment to examine outside influences that are unrelated to your child’s situation as well as your gut reaction to the events. It sounds to me as though you are comfortable with this child as a playmate but you’d like to have a little additional reassurance by stipulating “with supervision”. If possible, I think you should plan activities for your son with this friend when you are present. I wouldn’t make a big deal out of what has happened. But the more you know about the boys (and the boys together), the better you will feel about the friendship.
The next step is to continue to clarify appropriate touching for your son. “Tickling in private areas” can be a normal and innocent thing. But you want your son to be clear that it is not allowed. He needs to know how to say “stop” and how to redirect the play. Keep open a dialogue about his body and his experiences through all his growing years.
Eventually, I believe you will regain your confidence in your son’s ability to understand appropriate play and his friend’s innocence. You will, then, trust them to sit next to each other on the bus and to play freely again. I do not think we should underestimate the benefit of supervision for school age children. Supervision is like a long rope that gets let out and reeled back in periodically. Children need adults near by and tuned in.
Even in the idealized “old days” when parents “threw” the children “out on the streets” to play, they were very supervised by the “eyes” of the entire neighborhood. Neighbors, strangers, and relatives were all involved and informed of the antics of children – children knew anyone at anytime could and would “tell their parents” of any misdeeds! So, for a short while, you will be checking a little closer on your son’s play and your son’s thinking. The line will be let out farther and farther with trust, and then shortened again when he reaches the next experimental stage. The process continues through a long, repeating cycle of trust-responsibility-independence-trust.
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.