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Child's play

There is a world of difference between playground games and adult sex, argues Tiffany Jenkins

At primary school we often ran shrieking from slobbering kisses until other playground activities like skipping and handstands grabbed our attention. Kiss chase (or its variation knicker chase) is a game that almost everybody I know has played and enjoyed. So why are five-year olds at a school in Luton prevented from playing it?

In March Maureen FitzGerald, head of Cheynes Infant School, became concerned when some children were seen kissing, sometimes 'French kissing', their playmates. She wrote to parents saying that it was 'inappropriate' for youngsters to behave this way. Parents and teachers agreed to a ban, and dinner ladies now have to check that children abide by the new rules. Pupils are being encouraged to view this very average and harmless behaviour as deeply wrong.

Recently, a six-year old boy at a London school pulled his pants down, went into the girls' toilets and tried to touch girls on several occasions. He has been accused of 'aggressive sexual assault' and is kept under close supervision by staff at his primary school. His family takes him home at lunchtime to keep him away from his classmates. Some parents wanted him expelled and one family withdrew their daughter to protect her. The local authority sent in 'behaviour support workers' to advise the school on how to deal with him and they are working with the boy's parents to 'modify' his behaviour.

All this for a six-year old boy who was curious - like many other young children. They are curious about themselves and each other and play games to find out more. From the age of two and up, children will play in a semi-sexual fashion. As Dr Spock said in 1946 of 'doctors and nurses', another favourite game played by every generation of children, 'Playing house and doctor helps to satisfy sexual curiosity while also allowing children to practise being grown up in more general ways'. Or as Wardell B Pomeroy wrote in 1968, 'Millions of small boys and girls have "played doctor", making a game out of sexual exploration. This kind of make-believe enables children to look at and examine each other as much as they please'.

This semi-sexual experimentation is totally different in intent, motivation and content to the intimate relations that adults form. It is often little more than working out what the body is, what the differences are between boys and girls, what is specific about oneself and others. If we want them to grow into well-adjusted adults, it is important that children are given space and guidance to play in this fashion, in order that they might come to understand how to relate to each other. If instead children are told to view their curiosity as wrong and disgusting, they are likely to end up with more shame than sense. That the six-year old London boy has been removed from normal social situations with his classmates can only prevent him from working through this curiosity and learning what is socially acceptable public behaviour.

Again in March, an 11-year old boy was placed on the sex offenders' register and made the subject of a three-year supervision order. Accused of sexual assault, he had been lying naked with his naked two-year old cousin. After sentencing, in the Newcastle Crown Court, the judge commented: 'I point out that the doctor says this, and I quote, "I find no evidence that sexual motivation was a part of this incident".' But because the case was taken as far as a court in a climate of growing anxiety about child sexuality, the boy's behaviour has been understood and treated as though it was indeed sexually motivated.

This boy is not the only child on the sex offenders' register, though the Home Office claims that it cannot confirm how many there are. Treating children as sex offenders criminalises ordinary play, and apart from the consequences for individual children, it makes a mockery of serious sexual offences.

These examples of childish experimentation that have come to be seen as 'inappropriate', over-sexualised or as a form of sexual assault are not out of the ordinary. Across society, commentators and campaigners proclaim that children are getting into sexual behaviour earlier, and so can become 'young abusers'. As Blake Morrison wonders in his book As If: 'we continued playing doctors and nurses for some years after. How many years? Till I was 11, 12, 13? Did that, does that, make me an abuser? Of my sister, as well as cousins and friends? Ugly to admit to myself, hard to face. Merely to touch a boy's penis, or a girl's vagina, is not abuse, or wasn't thought so...'

In fact there is nothing new about children's sexual play. But in the past decade normal childish experimentation has come to be seen in a distorted light. Adults have become so concerned about sex and sexuality that they are transferring these worries on to the behaviour of children. And this has led to a set of entirely 'inappropriate' assumptions surrounding children's behaviour.

Treating children's play like adult sex problematises a vital stage of a young child's development into a mature adult. It forces children to stop exploring innocently, misinterpreting their actions as sexual before they would be, and viewing them as damaging where they are not. Sexualising children's behaviour through censure does exactly what those who would ban kiss chase are worried about: it makes children into apparently sexual beings, and treats them prematurely as adults, with all the motivations and desires that adult relationships involve.

The warped attempt to treat children like sexually responsible adults is an offshoot of a climate in which many adults seem to want to be treated like children, and protected from other people. Kiss chase is a game for five-year olds; sex is something adults do. That society seems to be losing sight of this distinction is a bigger problem than any playground game.

Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999

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