When you catch your kid masturbating (awk-ward!)

Don’t freak out if you discover that your child is masturbating—it's a normal, healthy part of growing up.
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First words. First steps. These are the early childhood milestones parents expect and celebrate. But the first time you discover your child masturbating can be one of those needle-scratch parenting moments. Even the most progressive moms and dads may be stymied by how they should address the situation. Some parents worry that it’s odd or unhealthy. How do we let our kids know that it’s OK to enjoy their bodies, but that there are also times that they need to, well, keep their hands out of their pants?

Iris Smith,* a mother of three in Regina, was caught completely off guard last May, when she realized her then-three-year-old daughter was pleasuring herself in her car seat by rubbing the seat belt between her legs. Her daughter’s nanny had also noticed the child touching herself at various points during the day, regardless of who was around. “We didn’t want her to think what she was doing was wrong, but we thought we should address it,” Smith says.

Cory Silverberg, a sexuality educator in Toronto and author of the book What Makes A Baby, explains that masturbation is a very normal thing for kids to do. According to a 2009 clinical report published in Pediatrics, it’s common for children aged two to five years old to touch themselves, both in private and in public. Silverberg says that infants and even babies in utero have been observed (via ultrasound) touching their genitals. But the activity isn’t tied to sexual fantasy, desire or things we grown-ups typically associate with self-stimulation—it’s just because children often explore their bodies. “We need to remember that when kids touch themselves, it’s not the same thing as adult masturbation,” Silverberg says.

Read more: What you need to go about kids’ genital health >

Situations like Smith’s are a chance to give children positive messages about their bodies while establishing boundaries and teaching them about the concept of privacy. “It’s an opportunity to point out that our bodies can feel pretty good, and that some parts of our bodies are more sensitive and feel better than others when touched,” says Silverberg. “It’s also about teaching the difference between public and private. Parents can explain that touching some parts of our bodies is OK in public, but other parts are for touching by ourselves in private.” It’s up to each family to decide whether “private” means only at home, only in the child’s bedroom, or something else.

Maya Park,* a mom of two kids in Nelson, BC, also volunteers at a daycare. She noticed that one of the children, a four-year-old boy, liked to touch himself during storytime and when he was lying on his cot during naptime. She didn’t want to single the boy out or cause unnecessary embarrassment by calling attention to his behaviour, but she worried that it would become disruptive for the other children. In this kind of scenario, Silverberg recommends that caregivers and parents have a casual but private conversation about the issue.

When Park broached the subject with the child’s parents, she says they were initially embarrassed. But she assured them that their son was not the first child to discover there were more interesting things to do during naptime than sleep. In the end, the boy’s parents agreed that a casual chat about privacy, combined with a special “alone time” space he could use at daycare, was the best course of action.

If you’re concerned about your child’s masturbation habits, don’t be afraid to talk to your child’s doctor or healthcare provider about it.

Smith says her daughter has now found other ways to keep herself occupied during long car rides. But she isn’t shy about announcing to her parents that she’s going to her room for some alone time.

*Names have been changed

A version of this article appeared in our March 2014 issue with the headline “Private matters,” p. 42.

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