It’s one of those things that isn’t in the parenting manual. You’re going along in an ordinary day, juggling naptimes and sippy cups…and out of the corner of your eye, you see your toddler rubbing their privates. Yikes!
Now your heart is pounding and your head is spinning. OMG! Is that really what’s happening?! But they’re practically a baby! What do I do? What do I say that won’t mess them up? I’m not ready for this!
You may not feel fine in the moment, but everything actually is fine. Really.
Although kids touching their genitals can make adults uncomfortable, it’s perfectly normal and very common. Many toddlers touch themselves in the tub or rub a plush toy against their genitals. They’re busy exploring the world, especially their amazing body, and when they happen upon their genitals, they find touching there feels particularly good. Some kids masturbate to soothe themselves when they feel anxious.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says [make link] that “By definition, masturbation is self-stimulation of the genitals. It is done by both boys and girls and is normal behavior. Up to the age of five or six years, masturbation is quite common.”
Don’t Make It a Bigger Deal than It Is
What’s hard about kids masturbating is adults’ reaction to it. It weirds us out. It’s hard to think of our adorable child as a sexual being…but that’s the reality. Human sexuality is as much a part of our bodies and our lives as our digestive system and our muscles.
Try not to make a mental leap to all the many stages of sexual learning and development your kid will go through in the next 15 or 20 years. The self-pleasuring they’re doing is just one, normal thing, in this moment, so respond to it matter-of-factly in this moment.
You might say “That feels good, doesn’t it? That’s a special, private part of your body.” Or you might not say anything at all–but do your best to be calm and relaxed so kids don’t pick up on any negative energy.
Keeping It Private
A child’s self-pleasuring also gives you the chance to talk about privacy, especially if they’re touching themselves in front of other people. There’s nothing shameful or wrong about touching oneself, but people don’t do it in public.
So, say something like, “Our sexual parts are special; we don’t share them with just anyone. So when you touch yourself there, be sure to do it in a private place.”
Or, “It’s perfectly fine to touch yourself in a private place like the tub or bedroom, but not in the living room or at school.”
Or, “The parts we cover with a bathing suit are private. They’re good, important parts of our bodies, but they’re so special that we keep them covered except when we’re at home with people we love, or when a doctor or nurse needs to check them. When you touch those parts, it’s best to do it in your room or the bathroom, so it’s private.”
Keep Your Eye on the Long Run
When you see your child self-pleasuring, that’s an opportunity to start laying a healthy foundation around sexuality. Take the long view: What do I hope for my child’s eventual sex life, and how can I handle the situation now to work toward that?
If you want your child to have accurate information about anatomy and sexuality, use the correct terms for body parts.
If you want your child to talk to you about sexual topics as they grow up (and I hope you do), demonstrate now that you can talk calmly about penises, vulvas, and self-pleasuring.
If you want them to grow up without shame about their body and sexuality, don’t create shame by saying or implying that there’s anything wrong with genitals or touching them. What you say can be brief and simple; just don’t be negative.
Your tone matters a lot. If you freak out, seem angry, or quickly change the subject, your child learns that there’s something wrong about genitals, sexual feelings, or sexual touch. They may even think there’s something wrong with them for having those feelings or touching themselves. That can create shame and stress around sex that, sadly, can last a lifetime. It’s much better for parents to come to grips with our own anxiety about masturbation than to pass negative feelings onto our kids.
Because really, uncomfortable as some moments may be, our kids need us to be there for them as they learn about life and sexuality. It’s all fine, it’s all normal, and we can even talk about it.