by Karen Platt
I witnessed something during a play date my five-year-old daughter had with her friend who’s the same age and I don’t know whether I handled it well or not. They were playing with lots of chasing, tackling and lots of laughing. At one point her friend was in an armchair, legs out and my daughter was on top. They were laughing and tickling, then the friend’s foot ended up between my daughter’s legs and she started to rub my daughter’s vulva. My daughter laughed as it tickled her and then I saw her friend do it again with intent. I caught her eye and just as I was about to intervene they moved on. At this point I took everyone out to the park. I didn’t mention anything to the mother but as I thought about it, I became more uncomfortable with what happened. I am worried about my daughter going over to this friend’s house as I have a hunch the kids aren’t very well supervised. I’ve had talks with my daughter about her private parts and that no one is to touch them but her (but it wasn’t the girl’s hand, it was her foot and it happened so fast). A couple of days later I talked with her about tickling and pointed out which spots are OK for someone to tickle and which are not. I told her that she can tickle her privates but that no one else can. She claimed she didn’t remember her friend’s tickle. Am I overreacting about this or do I have cause for concern, especially in my daughter going to their house? Should I have said something at the time—or would stepping in have caused shame to the kids? Should I mention it to the mother?
My initial reaction is to paste a big gold star on your parenting chart. Truly. There are a number of questions you pose here but, in my humble estimation, the most important thing is that your “stepping in” took the form of going to the park, not making a big deal of a fleeting moment in childhood playtime. Good for you. Remember, a parent’s reaction to something can be much more traumatizing (or intriguing) than the thing itself.
I would ask you what exactly you mean when you say the friend repeated her tickle “with intent?” Intent is a pretty hard thing to discern in five-year-olds, particularly in a moment of wild silly play. The action may have been “intentional,” but we need to be careful about ascribing adult intent to small children. Perhaps her “intent” was to get your daughter to laugh again, or maybe to see if you got that “look” in your eye—you know, that one that told her she just did (and got away with) something naughty even if she didn’t know quite what it was. How tantalizing! Perhaps it’s simply that, to a five-year-old, nothing (other than poop) is funnier or more intriguing than “private parts.” Of course there’s always the possibility of more sinister causes, but I’d be loath to go there on this particular evidence.
The fact that the girls are the same age, seemed to be having a wonderful time, were mutually involved in the chasing and tickling game and seemed completely un-affected by this event, are pretty good indications that you could let it go. After all, your daughter did say she didn’t even remember the tickle. And why would she be evasive? It sounds like you are open with her and have an on-going dialogue about sexual things—touch, private parts, masturbation, etc. At some point we have to trust that our comfort and openness will result in our children feeling comfortable enough to tell us if something isn’t OK for them.
As far as having your daughter play at the friend’s house, that seems a separate issue related to an assumption about the amount of supervision the children may have. Do you know why you have this “hunch?” While I’m all for following our instincts, I think it’s important to try to understand why these feelings exist. Perhaps mentioning this incident to the mom, without making too much of it, can open up a dialogue about your respective attitudes about parenting in general. Frankly, I’d be more concerned about my daughter spending an afternoon at a friend’s house eating Twinkies and drinking Coke in front of a TV than about a five-year-old’s wayward foot.
Karen Platt is a writer and sexual health educator.