Oh, the “M” word… we meet again. 

Masturbation is a topic that tends to show up on this blog, and similar blogs that address sexual issues, from the aspect of compulsivity and unhealthy or addictive sexual behavior that adults engage in. In a previous job I worked as a counselor at an assessment center for child victims of sexual abuse. Every week I would get calls from parents who were panicked about their child masturbating and what it could possibly mean. While working there I talked about masturbation and children all the time. I thought  would address some of the more common concerns that parents tend to have about their children’s masturbation, as well as how parents should respond.

One of the most important things that parents of young children should keep in mind is that masturbation isn’t always masturbation. In fact, body exploration is a part of normal, healthy child sexual development. As adults, we associate touching or self stimulation as a sexual activity. It is common for us to project our adult ideas about sex, lust, or fantasy on to children when we see them touching in a way we feel is inappropriate. Unless they have been exposed to adult sex or pornography, young children do not have any concept of what sex is. What we view as masturbation for them is more likely self exploration and/or self soothing. This non-sexual thought process is something like, “Hey check out what I found! Hmmm… that feels good” and repeat. The repeat may include rubbing or touching with their hands or toys, and can progress to rubbing on furniture, toys or pillows, modeling with dolls, or comparing body parts with other children of the same age (either same or opposite sex). All of these behaviors are very normal in children under 8 years old.

According to the Children’s Assessment Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan the following  are a few other sexual behaviors that are considered normal for young children:

0-4 Years Old

  • Touches or rubs own genitals
  • Interested in and explores the differences between genitals (male and female, child and adult)
  • Use dirty or “potty” language
  • Plays house or doctor (imitative or modeling)

5-8 Years Old

  • Touches self
  • Tells or re-tells “dirty jokes”
  • Plays doctor while exploring other children
  • Kissing, hand holding
  • Pretends or mimics dating
  • Writes letters about “sex” terminology

As parents we are given a command to “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Generally speaking, I think that we assume that this verse means to teach children about good morals, give children discipline, and provide a biblical foundation so our kids will grow up to be adults who live that stuff out. That’s true. But what we sometimes overlook is that this command is to teach our children about all things, including sex. When we teach our children, even our young children about body parts and touching we are starting the conversation. And we are helping to create a solid foundation that leads to healthy sexual relationships when they are adults. I think that this is a specific, intentional goal that all parents should have.

How do we create that foundation and provide Proverbs 22 training and instruction when we are talking about sexual behavior with children younger that 8 years old?

  • When you see your child doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable, such as “masturbation”, remember that it is normal and non-sexual. Don’t yell, become stressed, or in any way communicate to your child (verbally or non-verbally) that he or she is doing something bad. Shaming your child can have devastating, long term effects.
  • It is appropriate to teach your child about private parts and that they are just that: private. That means that we don’t touch them in front of other people or when we are in public.
  • If you think that your child is touching his or herself to self soothe acknowledge that it feels good and redirect him or her to another, more appropriate self soothing activity.
  • Reinforce who can and can not touch his or her private parts. Also reinforce that it is ok to say no to any kind of touch, even hugs or kisses, if they don’t want them. Their body is theirs.
  • Start creating a comfort with appropriate sexual vocabulary by teaching your child the correct names for private parts.

Sexual images and sex talk is everywhere, especially for school aged children. Parents need to start the conversation long before their children are exposed through media or peers. It is so important for us to talk about it frequently and calmly. Show your child you are comfortable talking about this and he or she will be more comfortable talking about it with you when they are older.

I’m curious: Do you think your parents did a good job talking about sex or sexuality with you? At what age do you plan to start talking about sex or sexual behaviors with your children?