Of all the surprises that came with being a mom, this was the biggest: having to deal with my daughters touching their private parts. My youngest, for instance, likes to splay her legs over the sides of the bathtub and caress her, well, you know. And when my other daughter was three years old, she frequently danced naked, running her fingers up and down her torso and in between her, well, you know. “I’m either raising a Broadway star or a stripper!” I once exclaimed to a friend.
I asked other moms if this behaviour was normal. One told me, “My son plays with his woo-hoo every night before bed.” Another came right out and said it: “My child masturbates.”
Yikes! Masturbation. This can’t be what my daughters are doing…or is it? And if it is, is it so bad? I know my reaction to their behaviour can have long-term consequences on their self-esteem. I know not to say things like “Stop it!” or “That’s bad!” which could make them feel ashamed of their bodies. But I’m not sure what would be helpful to say or do in the situation. So I decided to go to the experts for advice.
Getting to know their bodies
“Masturbation is an emotionally loaded term for people,” says Toronto author and sex educator Kim Martyn.“I prefer to say self-exploration or self-pleasuring.” Whatever term you use, Martyn explains that it begins really early for many kids. “We’re hard-wired before we’re born in terms of genital-brain connections,” she says.
Between infancy and age three, boys start to have erections and girls start to lubricate. Joy Becker, a nurse and regional educational consultant with the Options for Sexual Health program in Nanaimo, BC, cautions these are not signs of sexual arousal. “It’s just reflexes at this stage,” she says.
As babies become toddlers and gain more hand coordination (and particularly when they’re being potty trained), many develop a fascination with their genitals. “Just like children will explore what is hidden away in the kitchen cupboards,” says Gary Direnfeld, a social worker and child development expert in Dundas, Ont., “they will also explore what has been hidden away beneath the diaper.”
Laura Wershler, executive director of Sexual Health Access Alberta, an organization that connects people of all ages with sexual health information, education and services, says some children find rubbing their genitals to be comforting, the same way sucking a thumb or holding onto an old blanket is for others.
And from about three to six years of age, children often start to explore their bodies with same- and opposite-sex peers. “By this point, they’re curious about bodies, and may play ‘doctor’ to find out about differences,” says Wershler.
Expert opinion differs on what self-pleasuring means for kids as they develop. Some say sexual fantasies don’t occur until puberty, that even though boys wake up with and have erections throughout the day, and girls self-touch frequently, they aren’t aroused or having orgasms. Others say children can be aroused and seem to experience orgasm even during infancy. Because of the lack of research on child sexuality (for ethical reasons), no one knows for certain.
Teens and touch
For teenagers, masturbation is not only normal, but it’s healthy, says Martyn, who is also the author of All the Way: Sex for the First Time. And for girls, it can be especially important. “Female bodies are more complex,” she says. “Often the first time a girl or woman has an orgasm is through self-pleasuring. And when young women learn how to do this on their own, they can then guide their partners better and enjoy sex with someone else.”
There is medical research to suggest that men who masturbate and orgasm regularly may have lower risks of prostate cancer. The key thing is not to make boys feel embarrassed, says Wershler. “There is a kind of shaming that goes on — that they are desperate, pathetic or something is wrong with them if they masturbate.”
With both genders, rubbing to the point of orgasm releases dopamine and endorphins, which help young people relax and feel more connected to their bodies. And self-exploration is one way for young people to figure out when (and wait until) they’re ready to become intimate with another person. “It allows the young person to have sexual pleasure without feeling the need to seek out a partner,” says Martyn.
Promoting safety and self-esteem
So how do you help your kids feel good about their bodies while ensuring they know how to protect themselves? The most important thing to teach them is the difference between self-touching in private versus public places. “The message should be that touching in and of itself is not dirty or disgusting, so long as it’s done in an appropriate place and doesn’t put the child at risk of exploitation,” says Sara Dimerman, a child and family therapist in Thornhill, Ont. “It’s OK for them to touch themselves when they’re in their rooms alone, but not at the supermarket or the park.”
Becker says parents should try to talk about masturbation as neutrally as possible. “It’s not one big conversation about the birds and the bees,” says Becker. “Your children will have different questions at different times. If you don’t know the answer, say you’ll look it up together. If the question gets asked at an inappropriate place, like a party, tell your child you’ll talk about it when you get home — and then do it.”
As uncomfortable as this may be, studies show that children who have ongoing and open discussions with their families on this subject tend to delay sexual intercourse and engage in less risky sexual behaviours when they do become sexually active.
One word of caution: Masturbation that becomes obsessive and compulsive might be a sign that something is wrong. If playing with other children or other daily activities take a back seat to the touching, it could indicate that the child has been sexually abused, explains Wershler. “Talk to the child and seek out a professional — such as a doctor — for help and guidance.”
Books about our bodies
For young children
• It’s Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley
• Mummy Laid an Egg! by Babette Cole
For older kids and young teens
• Boys, Girls & Body Science: A First Book About Facts of Life by Meg Hickling
• The “What’s Happening to My Body?” Book for Girls and The “What’s Happening to My Body?” Book for Boys by Lynda Madaras
• Beyond the Big Talk: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teens by Debra W. Haffner
• The New Speaking of Sex: What Your Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It by Meg Hickling
• It’s Easier Than You Think! Talking with Your Children About Sexual Health and Well-Being A brochure for parents at sexualhealthaccess.org.