by Melanie J. Davis, EdD, CSE
Masturbation is a normal activity participated in by children at very young ages—even male fetuses have even been observed grabbing their penises. But knowing masturbation is normal and dealing with it in your home are two different things. It’s easy to ask a child to keep self-exploration private; it’s more difficult when your child is “doing exercises,” as my friend’s child put it, in the living room when guests visit.
Why does talking about masturbation make so many parents uncomfortable, despite surveys that show the majority of people either masturbate or have done it at some time in their life? There’s no medical reason to be concerned: self-pleasure cannot lead to pregnancy, sexually transmitted infection, or heartbreak. The harm that comes from masturbation is due to the stigma that makes people feel that they are doing something shameful if they enjoy touching their own bodies.
During the Victorian era, masturbation was seen as a sign of weak moral fiber. Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham invented his famous crackers to suppress sexual urges, and Dr. John H. Kellogg invented the original, sugar-free corn flakes to prevent the urge to masturbate.
Those were innocuous “cures,” but other preventive methods were scary: bizarre devices were sold to stop children and teens from touching their genitals and to punish them for having “unnatural” sexual urges. Some parents forced their children to wear spiked metal vises that scratched the genitals upon arousal or pinched fingers that attempted to touch those areas. Some children had their foreskin or clitoris removed as punishment for masturbation.
Why Teach Kids about Self-Pleasure?
- Young children benefit from hearing that it’s normal to explore their bodies and learn how they work.
- Parents can encourage children to appreciate their bodies without embarrassment, albeit in private.
- Masturbation can be a self-comforting behavior when children cannot sleep.
- Children can gain a sense of ownership about their bodies when they give themselves sexual pleasure. When they do become sexually active with a partner later in life, their sexual self-awareness will help them to communicate their needs to their partners so they can enjoy a more satisfying sexual relationship.
- Masturbation allows adolescents and teens to relieve sexual urges without a partner and with no sexual health risks.
Teaching Sex-Positive Attitudes
If you want to encourage positive attitudes about masturbation, start by looking at your own feelings. What messages did you receive about it from your family, friends or religious tradition? Are those the messages you want your child to receive? If not, why not? Talk about masturbation with your co-parent to ensure you’re on the same page where the kids are concerned.
Let your infant touch his or her genitals during diaper changes. Let your toddler unabashedly explore while washing all of his or her body parts, and take the opportunity to teach the proper names for genitals (Note to parents of girls: Remember that the vagina is on the inside; the vulva is everything the outside). You can make casual comments that let older children know masturbation is normal and healthy—they may act disgusted to hear the words, but they’ll internalize the message. Do your child a great service by saying, “I promise never to walk in on you in the bathroom or your bedroom when the door is closed unless I knock first.”
In the book, “It’s So Amazing” for young children, masturbation is mentioned in a section on kinds of touch. The book explains what masturbation is, acknowledges that many people do it and many don’t, and it explains that many families have different attitudes about masturbation. It also says that most doctors agree is normal and healthy.
For adolescents, “Sex, Puberty and All that Stuff” has separate sections for boys and girls that include information about masturbation. I like the passage that states that nearly everyone masturbates even though few people talk about. The book also mentions that while masturbation is usually done in private, couples can enjoy it, too. Messages like this can help keep sexually active teens healthy by teaching them a risk-free alternative to activities that expose them to sexually transmitted infection and pregnancy.
Is it easy to talk about masturbation with your children? Not necessarily, but by putting your own embarrassment aside, you will continue the process of helping your child become a sexually confident and happy adult.
Melanie J. Davis, EdD, CSE is the founder of Honest Exchange LLC, a sexuality education consulting firm in Somerville, NJ. She offers private consultations in person and by phone and is a popular speaker for professionals and for college and medical school students. Visit HonestExchange.com for free resources, book recommendations, and information about Dr. Davis’ services. Find her on Twitter: @DrMelanieDavis