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Only Six and Knows How to Nasty?

Sexual play in children is normal, but it may not always be

You walk into your child's room and find his or her playing doctor with the neighbor's kid. You (check one):

A. Call your spouse or pediatrician for guidance through the crisis

B. Make an appointment with your favorite brand of therapist

C. Chew out the children

D. Give them a stethoscope

Sex play is quite typical among children, finds a Pennsylvania psychologist who has conducted one of the few studies about childhood sexual play and games. Between ages six and 12--the years Freud dubbed the latency stage-kids are highly curious about sex and play a range of games with members of both the same sex and the opposite sex.

These games, says Sharon Lamb, assistant professor of human development at Bryn Mawr College, go beyond merely checking things out to actual sexual stimulation. "Kids are doing lots of finding out about their own bodies," Lamb said. "They also experiment with gender roles."

The only problem is, what's typical may not be so healthy. In her study of 108 randomly chosen undergraduate women responding to a questionnaire, 85percent remembered a "normal childhood sexual-play experience." Of those, 44percent involved cross-gender play and 56 percent same-sex play. But girls who played sex games with boys experienced more aggression and coercion, which seems to come with the territory of playing with boys. "It's probably parallel to lots of other kinds of play," said Lamb.

She catalogs nine variations of normal childhood sex play:

o Playing doctor. One of the most common games, listed by 15 percent of the respondents. The whole point is the removal of clothes to examine each others' bodies, especially the genitals.

o Exposure. Another 15 percent listed this pure "experiment in curiosity" which, unlike "playing doctor," dispensed with pretend.

o Experiments in stimulation. Similarly unstructured and without fantasy, this activity had children exploring the titillation of physical contact, notably of the genitals.

o Kissing games. The main event is kissing. Fantasy sexual play. For nearly 31 percent of the respondents, sex play was embedded in some kind of fantasy play, which, as with "doctor," was merely the framework for experimenting with sexual stimulation. Children playing these kind of games often rehearsed adult roles of parent, lover, boss--even prostitute. Four common themes in this category include:

o house

o love scenes based on TV or book characters

o commercialized sexuality, such as the kind represented in pornographic materials, strip shows, poses from Playboy, and prostitution.

o stories of sexual dominance, where coercion was built into the play, as in rape scenarios and tales of slave girls.

All typical, says Lamb, though you may want to watch out for that last one.

While you may not want to hand your kids a stethoscope and offer complete approval, you shouldn't be worried either. Remember: the important aspect is whether coercion is used. If a child doesn't feel manipulated and the age difference between playmates is less than five years, the play is likely to be mutual and a normal expression of curiosity.