Dear Margo: Long-Ago Guilt

Can playing “doctor” as a kid be construed as inappropriate? Margo Howard’s advice

Long-Ago Guilt

Dear Margo: Growing up with older brothers, I was exposed to sex early through the magazines, parties, etc. that came with them being in high school and entering puberty. I was even sharing a room with a teenage brother who snuck his girlfriends in while I was “asleep.” On my block, there was a group of us, boys and girls, who would play “doctor.” My problem: When I was 11 or 12, I was asked to babysit a neighbor’s kids. One of them was a girl about 6 or 7 with whom I played doctor until I saw a fear in her that stopped me dead. I had not touched her sexually; I just did what doctors did when they looked at you. I did not understand her response. This never happened again.

As I grew up and learned more about life, I realized I had more or less molested her. For more than 30 years, I have wondered whether she is OK and whether I should reach out and try to explain it all. My wife thinks it was not enough to impact her, that there is a chance she does not even recall it. I just want another’s view and some direction. — Lost

Dear Lost: Your growing up was obviously quite sexualized because of the older brothers. I would hope that most sitters did not/do not play doctor with the little kids in their charge. Good sense would just seem to dictate that.

Thirty years is a long time to wonder about something and then decide to maybe check into the matter. I would not pursue the incident with the victim, because no mater what you would say, if she felt molested, she was molested. There is always the chance that the fear you saw in her eyes had to do with someone who had been molesting her in a more determined way. Forgive yourself for this unfortunate misstep, and if the residual guilt is too hard to handle, a session with a therapist could help you put this to rest. — Margo, forwardly

Of Cake in Your Face and Bended Knees

Dear Margo: I have two wedding-related questions, just out of curiosity. (I am married.) What’s with the bended knee business when men propose? I find that kind of 18th century.

And what do you think of couples smooshing the wedding cake into each other’s faces? I have seen this done a few times and can’t figure it out. — Inquisitively

Dear Inq: Well, I’ve probably had more experience with this than most people, and no one I’ve known (or married) ever got down on one knee. I know it happens, however, from reading the Sunday New York Times wedding section stories. I have to think it’s done with a touch of irony and perhaps a wish to bow to the traditional. It certainly is one of those gestures whose meaning is immediately understood.

As for the cake, I’d probably belt a guy who did that at the cake cutting. I see no humor in covering a bride’s face with cake and frosting when she’s all made up and wearing a gown for her big day. In fact, it strikes me as a vaguely hostile act, for reasons that elude me. The symbolism of the first slice of wedding cake, by the way, is that the bridal couple feed it to each other as a gesture of sharing and taking care of each other. — Margo, properly

* * *

Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


Every Thursday and Friday, you can find “Dear Margo” and her latest words of wisdom on wowOwow

Click here to follow Margo on Twitter

41 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Lila says:

    Uh… a little lost on LW1. He says “I had not touched her sexually” but then says “I had more or less molested her.” Well – someone chime in here, but isn’t molestation sexually touching someone else?

    • avatar John Lee says:

      Maybe he was being technical.  The first definition of molest is “to bother, interfere with, or annoy.”

    • avatar chuck alien says:

      yup… you are much more likely to get molested by a salesperson than a teenager.

  2. avatar Rahnesong says:

    Not really, when you think about it. They were playing doctor. When you go to a doctor many times they will poke and prod you to determine the problem. Sometimes that poking occurs around the genital area (depending on why your there). Would you say you were molested by your doctor?

    I think in his case it’s a matter of intent. Was he getting sexual pleasure (or any other kind of pleasure for that matter) from what he did? Doesn’t sound like it, in fact it sounds like the opposite. As soon as she gave him that horrified look he stopped. I think he needs get himself a dictionary and look up the definition of molestation.

    1. to bother, interfere with, or annoy.
    2. to make indecent sexual advances to.
    3. to assault sexually.

    If he was doing any of the above to her while playing ‘doctor’ then he would need some serious help. From his letter it doesn’t sound as if that’s what he did.

    • avatar Lila says:

      In this context, I think we’re talking legal definition of molestation. I have never heard of anyone going to jail for definition #1 here. Legal dictionaries give it the unmistakable meaning of any sexual conduct with a child, short of rape.

      As for real doctors in my childhood, no, none of their poking or prodding ever came close to my most personal areas. The most awkward thing that ever happened was getting the occasional shot in the butt. Otherwise clothing stayed on and poking and prodding involved innocuous things like ears and throat. No feeling of “molestation” there.

      I suspect Margo’s hunch is right, that the girl’s fearful reaction was because of someone else molesting her previously; but the LW’s “I didn’t touch her sexually, but I more or less molested her,” is really inconsistent. One would seem to exclude the other.

      • avatar Lym BO says:

        I think her fear might have just being touched there since no one else had touched her there since diaper days. It very well may not have been any sort of feeling of being molested. I would seriously think before contacting her because she has likely forgotten it & then where would you be?
        AS far as doctors touching kids, it varies. At my last visit with my four, the nine year boy & girl got a quick peek as did the seven year old. The four year old girl got a more detailed look since she had some complaints related to a potential urinary tract infection. When they were still in diapers (two and under), he actually did a detailed look to be sure everything looked like it was developing normally, no rash, etc. I’m sure this varies somewhat by practitioner.

  3. avatar medussa says:

    To LW1…I would actually be very cautious about talking about this incident with a therapist, or at least be careful which therapist you talk to. This could be construed as a crime, and they may not feel obligated to keep it private. Maybe the statute of limitations has passed…but maybe not.

    • avatar Paula says:

      After thirty years I would think he’s out of danger of any possible criminal prosecution! And aren’t therapists obligated to keep what patients tell them confidential???

      • avatar L T says:

        Yes, therapists are required to keep any such confession confidential. The only exception would be if the LW confessed plans to commit future criminal acts, in which case the therapist is allowed to warn the intended victim. Since the victim (or not, depending on your perspective) is an adult now, the therapist would have to keep his or her mouth shut.

        But as a side note, in terms of prosecution/statute of limitations, there are states who treat child molestation like murder, with no statute at all. So that would depend on which state the incident occurred in.

      • avatar casino la fantastique says:

        Not to mention that he was 11 when it occured.

  4. avatar Kate Olsen says:

    LW1 seems as if this was a clear course of childhood stuff.  He clearly stopped when he saw her angst.  If he was a true predator he would have used that to his advantage.  I believe he should let it go and realize he meant no harm to her.  It appears that he feels he molested her due to the media venues we have now.  I do not feel that from his letter however.  And I agree with medussa – do not discuss with a therapist as they are bound by law to report – no matter what the circumstances or how long ago.  Sometimes what is innocent is misconstrued by others. 

    LW2 – It is tradition for the man to get on his knee and beg his heart’s desire to chose him to marry.  And contrary to popular belief – it is most often the bride who shoves the cake in the face of the groom – at least in most of the weddings I have seen in my 49 years of life.  barbaric – yes – can we stop it – NO

  5. avatar TimIn808 says:

    With regard to LW1, my first thought is the gentleman was “11 or 12” at the time. Setting aside from the fact he should not have been charged with babysitting a “6 or 7” year old, I don’t view “playing doctor” at that age as molestation as much as it is a part of growing up and being curious about sexuality.

    I, like Margo, see no benefit to either in making contact. Thirty years is a very long time, and they were both quite young – she, obviously, much more so than he. Speaking from experience (of youthful indiscretions, though not of a sexual nature), many of our childhood memories get amplified and altered as we age.

    I remember having an awful fight with my mother when I was a teenager, as teenagers do. She grew tired of my angst and sent me out to spray weed killer along the fence line. In anger, I intentionally sprayed mother’s prized begonias. When I came home from school the next day, she was out in the yard on her hands and knees pulling them out of the ground and over the hill. Well, as I grew older, that memory haunted me. It was the worst thing I had ever done. Many, many years later (at least 20), I mentioned it to mom and apologized for being such a bratty teen. She had no idea what I was talking about – no recollection whatsoever.

    Anyway, a lot of rambling here, but I agree with Margo’s advice to LW1.

    As far as LW2: The bended knee is all about romance, and as Margo said, “the grand gesture.” We’ve learned it from childhood in Disney movies, cartoons and television. As for the cake? Well, if I had shoved cake in my partner’s mouth on our wedding day, we would have been divorced before the honeymoon. This much I know is true!

    • avatar Jon T says:

      As a side note, I’m not sure I see the problem with an 11 or 12-year-old babysitting a 6 or 7-year-old. I babysat with kids in my neighborhood when I was 12, and the ages ranged from about 6 to 9 years old. It was good experience in teaching me responsibility. Can you explain why that would be a problem? I’m not criticizing your opinion in any way, just curious.

      • avatar TimIn808 says:

        I’ll preface my reply by saying different children mature at different speeds and ages, and times were certainly different thirty years ago. I should have taken that into consideration. It was a safer, saner time.

        That said, I would never allow my children (both age 6) to be taken care of by an 11 or 12 year old. Emergencies, while rare, happen. Expecting an 11 or 12 year old to react properly in emergency circumstances is unrealistic. It’s an age where responses are more reactionary than thoughtful.

        My opinion only, and I mean no disrespect.

        • avatar Jon T says:

          No disrespect taken. 🙂 I was genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts. As you say, maturity levels vary from kid to kid. Everyone has to make that call individually both from the babysitter’s point of view, and the children being watched. I was fortunate that my parents were right down the street in case there was a problem, and I was pretty mature for my age. Some of my peers at that time might not have been great babysitting candidates.

          • avatar Kathleen Hein says:

            When I think back to all the child-care responsibilities I had at age 11, I sometimes wonder at the parents- both mine and the kids’ I sat for. But I was mature and responsible, and I was allowed to watch a 8,6, and 3 year old during the day with my parents next door. I also sat my 1-2 yr old cousin for short periods of time during the day, and at church, when no one else showed up to take the class, was in charge of 10+ 4-5 year olds. By the time I was 12, I was allowed to babysit after dark. My brother, 3 years younger than I am, was about the last person I was allowed to watch on my own, though. They knew he wouldn’t listen to me and that we’d fight.

            Technically, however, 30 years ago wasn’t safer times. Violent crimes and crimes against children are LOWER now (by a lot) than they were in the 70’s. This is usually attributed, however, to the extra vigilance parents now use.

        • avatar Lym BO says:

          I allow a 12 year old to watch my 9 year old twins, 7 year old, & 4 year old. It’s basically putting them to bed & her parents live right behind us. She is very mature. Looking into the future, I would allow my 7 year old to babysit much earlier than my 9 year olds. The 7 has tons common sense, initiative & a sense of right & wrong. She was changing her sister’s soiled diaper, on her own accord, when baby was maybe 6 months & she was 3! And did a stellar job to boot.
          When I was 11, I had a neighbor ask me to sit their three kids- 4,3 & a 3 month old. I thought the idea was absolutely absurd. (I had no young siblings or cousins- i.e. no experience ). My mother thought it was absurd. The neighbor was miffed I said no & didn’t talk to me for several years–until I could sit for her. Meanwhile, my 11 year old girlfriend sat for them.

    • avatar dcarpend says:

      Yep. My husband knew that if he shoved cake in my face, ours would go down as the shortest marriage on record. Fortunately, he’s not the type. Just on of his many sterling qualities.

  6. avatar ZippyDoDa says:

    I was molested 30 years ago…I think about it every day. 

    While a therapist may be required to report it, if it is bothering this LW that much, I would encourage him to pursue seeing one anyway. Yes, its a leap of faith, but I would venture to guess the relief he would get knowing he probably didn’t do anything would be worth the risk.

    Perhaps he could seek out a support group for victims (anonymity being the key here) to help him deal with this guilt he is obviously carrying.

  7. avatar Barbara says:

    LW#1 – Something about the story doesn’t add up that he didn’t do anything but he does consider it molestation. I’d say he probably did more than he’s letting on. The fear wasn’t necessarily from someone else, it could have been from an innocent child who didn’t understand the liberties this person who was in charge was taking with her. That being said, what is the point of reaching out? What if she says she’s not OK? What then? Do you think it would help that person hear your very late apologies now? I’ve never been in either of these roles but I am not seeing the purpose. Maybe he’s hoping the now-grown girl will tell him it’s all right so he can ease his own conscience. It certainly may not play out that way. I’d say you did enough potential damage when you were young. Let it go now. I hope it is true that you woke up and never did anything like that again.

    LW#2 I view this emphasis of the bended knee proposal as a real throw back. And now the only reason that you hear about it is because proposals have become “an event.” All pre-planned and video taped. Just one more extension of the big wedding obsession that seems to have overtaken the country. I really object to the man asking the woman. My husband and I just talked about it. No “proposal”, no asking my father for “my hand,” no big deal. More a discussion of the fact that we were crazy about each other, wanted the same things in life, tried desperately to spend every moment possible together. So maybe we should get married and make it official. We then went and told my parents and his parents. Maybe that’s why we’re still together after 30 some years.

    I, too, find the shoving the cake in the face a hostile act. Doesn’t matter about the makeup and dress, it’s just not a loving gesture. And to do it in front of all the people who are important to you is the most bizarre thing I’ve heard of. It has never happened at any wedding I’ve attended but I’ve heard enough stories to know it happens. Weird stuff.

  8. avatar Mjit RaindancerStahl says:

    I’ve seen the cake shoving thing, and I have yet to understand a pattern between those who do and those who don’t. My Hubby and I didn’t. His aunts expressed disappointment.

  9. avatar wishuponafallingstar says:

    I don’t understand what it is that LW#2 actually did. But, I agree with some of the comments here as well as with Margo. It doesn’t look like an actual molestation occurred, but that perhaps her fear was a reflection of someone else who had actually molested her.

  10. avatar Dararie says:

    With regards to the cake shoving thing, in the distant past, the bride’s cake was thrown at the bride.  The more cake that stuck to her, the more fertile she would be.  I’ve always assumed that the smashing thing was a remnant of that distant tradition.

    That being said, when I was a kid, we went to my aunt’s wedding, she had told her husband not to smash the cake, he did it anyway, she broke his nose in retaliation…..made quite and impression on the 6yr I was at the time.

  11. avatar Anais P says:

    I found myself agreeing completely with Margo on both letters. When LW1 wrote in about that expression of fear, yet he did not touch the little girl sexually, I immediately thought (as Margo did) that someone had done something similar but worse to her. As he was a child himself, he was not completely responsible, so therapy is certainly warranted.
    With LW2, I also think smashing the cake is a hostile act. I have seen cake smashed in brides’ faces and veils, ruining their makeup and clothing. Sometimes brides are equally aggressive. It is a ridiculous development in the past 40 years which I regard as a deterioration of public manners. What happened to the symbolism of sharing and caring? The down-on-one-knee proposing position is sweet though not necessary. If it’s raining at the top of the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower or a muddy hill, I wouldn’t advise the guy to kneel.

  12. avatar Cady McCowin says:

    On the cake shoving thing, I think it started because occasionally people would get a little frosting on their partner’s nose or cheek by accident, and it was sort of cute and funny, and immature people with a warped sense of humor figured if a little bit of frosting is funny, an entire faceful will be HILARIOUS!!! I’ve also seen couples do this who clearly don’t like each other, despite the fact that they’re getting married. I think it’s probably about half and half passive-aggressive hostility and immature “humor.”

  13. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW1: Margo’s comment that there “is always the chance that the fear you saw in her eyes had to do with someone who had been molesting her in a more determined way” struck me as extraordinarily insightful. But don’t be an oaf. She may not remember this incident at all, or perhaps she does. Either way, you can bet your balls that you are the last person she wants to hear from to discuss or reflect on such a matter. 

    LW2: The cake in the face thing is popular among unschooled greenhorns and lowlifes in general. Enough said.

  14. avatar lebucher says:

    OK I did the play doctor thing with the neighborhood boys around age 10 or 11.  I had not been molested yet at that age but I was still scared – not sure if I trusted them to not go too far with it, and well aware that I was outnumbered by the boys.  I felt very vulnerable, and as the activity went on I became more anxious and eventually found a reason to end the session and leave.  So prior molestation may or may not be a factor.  I think he is carrying guilt because he realized the girl was so fearful.  And there may be NO statute of limitations on molestation and a therapist is required to report that kind of unlawful behavior so I would think twice about going to one.  He should keep talking to his wife and reminding himself he was NOT getting his jollies out of victimizing someone… which, let’s face it, is what separates kids that are experimenting from kids that are victimizing.

    As for the cake thing, thankfully my fiance and I agreed to and honored a promise to NOT do that.  I was braced for him to do it anyway but he didn’t, for which I was grateful.  To me it does seem like a hostile act, and odd when you should be starting out respecting and loving each other.

  15. avatar lebucher says:

    BTW my man did the one knee thing, I am sure, as a nod to tradition — and I found it charming and sweet.  It also got the attention of all the nearby diners in the restaurant, which I am sure was also the goal.

    We’ve been divorced nearly 10 years now, but I can still smile about those early memories, back when things were good between us and I felt loved and cherished.

  16. avatar Scrapper79 says:

    Apparently, I’m the odd-woman out on this one, but I do NOT feel the cake “tradition” is a hostile act (as long as both the bride & groom is OK with it).  The pictures were over, first dances out of the way, etc. and we both laughed WITH each other as we did and kissed each other with our cakey faces.  🙂  We had fun, the guests had fun with it and then my matron of honor helped clean me up.  The only “rule” I gave my hubby is to not get any on my dress and he didn’t. 

    As long as the couple agree ahead of time, I don’t see why anyone else has to make a big deal out of it.  It’s just good-natured fun after a long and usually stressful day. 

    • avatar John Lee says:

      I have to agree with you that I don’t think the intent of the cake is hostile.  It’s a really crass and low-brow attempt at humor which bores and annoys me, but I don’t think it’s hostile at all.

      There are a LOT of humor that I found crass and low brow that MANY people love.  Basically any slapstick comedy bores me to tears, but for some reason, a lot of people like them.

      That’s essentially what he cake thing is, really low-brow slapstick humor that SOME people love.  I don’t and no one with a more sophisticated sense of humor would, but hey, it works at the box office, why not bring it to your wedding? (after all, isn’t that where brides get 90% of their ideas, from movies?)

  17. avatar mabel says:

    It sounds to me like LW#1 looked but did not touch, which would explain why he was confused over whether or not it was molestation. I would say that his guilt should be proportional to the amount of coercion that was involved. Since he was older and in a babysitting role, there is some coercion implicit in simply asking a younger child to take off their clothes, but since he was a child himself I don’t think he would have been able to recognize that. On the other hand if he pressured the child (which it sounds like he did) that’s a little worse. If he actually threatened the child or forcibly removed her clothes that’s definitely something that would have been traumatic for her and he would be right to feel guilty about it. But, that being said, he was about 11 or 12 and this was apparently a common activity in his peer group. He needs to cut himself a break because whether he traumatized her or not, he clearly didn’t intend to at the time. I would avoid contacting the woman without checking with a lawyer first, because on the off chance he could still be prosecuted he could carry the pedophile label for the rest of his life. But a therapist could help him understand that he wasn’t capable at his age at realizing the potential consequences of his actions for the other person. Who the heck would put a 6 year old girl in the care of a 12 year old boy anyway? 

  18. avatar mabel says:

    Re: LW#2… my mother has said since I was a child that she regarded the whole cake thing as a hostile act, and I don’t really see that the reasons are all that elusive. It’s one thing if the couple agrees in advance that they’re going to have a cake fight and are both looking forward to it as fun. But the act of letting another person feed you is an act of trust and vulnerability, and smashing the cake into the face of that person who is trusting you to be respectful is an ugly and potentially humiliating act. Often the groom ambushes the bride because his buddies are egging him on and he’s more concerned about putting on a show for them than he is about his wife’s feeling. Which is not a good way to start a marriage.

    I wore a 120 year old wedding gown when I got married, and I told my husband in advance that I did not want cake smashed all over me. If he had chosen to disregard that against my explicit wishes, I’d have considered myself publicly disrespected, and he would have been wearing the entire 3 tiers over his head – my pride would have called for nothing less.

  19. avatar angelmother3 says:

    I think the custom of pushing cake in the face is childish and boorish. Happily, I have only heard of it. The closest I came to seeing it was at the wedding of one of my nieces. Apparently she and her now ex-husband had not discussed ahead of time how they felt. Right after cutting the cake, the groom asked the bride if they could do the cake in the face routine. She said no. He said, “Aw, come on.” She said no. So he reached over and made a small streak of icing on her cheek. Sorry, but I thought that was dumb. I don’t remember her making a scene over it though. But he probably heard about it afterward. (She was barely 18, and he was 21. I think she was more mature than he was.)

  20. avatar madcap says:

    Re: LW#2: Almost 40 years ago, my new husband put a tiny dab of icing on my nose and then kissed it off. Sweet… I guess it’s a matter of degree. Now when I go to weddings I pray that the couple treat each other with love and respect; it’s a good portent for the marriage if they do.

  21. avatar D C says:

    I just passed my 30th wedding anniversary, and when we got married, the shoving of cake in the face was just starting.  We didn’t do it.  We actually talked about it before the wedding and agreed that it was a tacky thing to do.  I plan to have talks with my kids before their weddings, and encourage them to, in that reception moment and all others, treat each other with respect and love. 

    The strangest thing I ever saw at a wedding reception was a couple who had obviously gotten two ideas mixed up.  They were not Jewish, but I’m sure had seen the smashing of the glass in the ceremony.  And then there was some  (there wasn’t a fireplace).  We all looked at them like they were crazy.  I wasn’t really thrilled, as one of the wedding party who helped clean up afterward, to be cleaning up glass shards from the church fellowship hall carpet. 

    • avatar chuck alien says:

      I guess they didn’t notice that the Rabbi wraps up the glass in a little cloth, so as not to send shards of glass flying throughout the church.

      and it never occurred to them that smashing a glass into the church carpet was… incredibly stupid?

  22. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: Talk it over with a therapist maybe, if that helps your residual guilt. As for the (now grown) girl involved, I’d NOT contact her. She might have forgotten and you risk opening a really ugly can of worms. You were also a child at the time, but some people probably wouldn’t take that into consideration.

    L #2: The cake “things” at weddings; stupid imo, both smooshing cake into faces and/or feeding cake to each other. Just cut the danged cake, serve and eat it. Considering how many couples “get silly” with cake (and silly in other ways) at weddings…it’s become so (sadly) commonplace that only morons could think it’s cute or funny. >:-p

  23. avatar chuck alien says:

    Dear Margo… I’m old, and I like to complain about things that do not concern me in any way. Can you help me?

    Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that teenagers today are not as respectful as they once were.

    • avatar Deeliteful says:

      Dear Chuck: I am probably older than you are. Having said that, there is no help; your complaining will  only increase in the future.
      Teenagers are more disrespectful today.
      I hope you find this response enlightning.

  24. avatar Eileen Heath says:

    Bended knee thing. For one friend – it was a challenge. James L Grant got down on one knee to propose to Melissa Hynes on a airplane. He managed to actually get down on one knee on the floor in front of his seat and pull out the ring while staying out of the aisle.
    He got on a diet after that.

  25. avatar Aboulton says:

    From what I understand, the shoving the cake started as a thing only the bride did. She would cut it and begin to serve it to him as a symbol of serving him the rest of her life, she would make a mess of it to show she’s got a bit of spark in her, then she would clean his face again to show her love and service – Over all it was all extremely symbolic and never went to the extremes they go to now