Parents are generally unprepared for how much a child will touch, grab, pull, poke and probe their own genitals. And the reason they are unprepared is that it happens far sooner than most expect. That’s a shame because among the constants in this universe is the fact that children will put their hands down their pants.
The problem with all of this is that most adults lack the proper context to address the issue in any kind of reasonable way. Kids exploring their own bodies is tangled up in millennia of baggage and hang-ups about sex. That puts parents on edge, and when parents on edge they may resort to shame or anger to stop a practice they consider abnormal or even immoral. But the harsh truth is that a child who masturbates is neither immoral or abnormal. They are just a kid.
Here are more harsh truths every parent should understand before they tell their kid to stop touching themselves.
Harsh Truth #1: Kids Will Explore Their Genitals Sooner Than Parents Expect
There are a whole bunch of people in this world who are shocked by the idea of a child touching their own genitals. Those same people will likely be even more shocked to learn that researchers have observed unborn babies touching their genitals in ultrasounds. Yes, it happens even in the womb.
So it should be no surprise that even as babies, a child will touch their genitals. Most often this will happen during diaper changes or baths. The biggest concern here is not that the child is getting some sort of illicit pleasure. That’s just silly. The biggest concern is that the child may hurt themselves due to lack of coordination or sharp fingernails. So keep the nails trimmed and don’t worry about a baby who has discovered their penis or vulva.
Harsh Truth #2: Kids Touch Their Genitals Out of Normal Curiosity
As a baby grows into a toddler, their lives are ruled by one prime directive: developing an understanding of what they are and how they fit into the world. Part of that understanding comes from a child exploring their body.
Importantly, for a child, all parts of the body are made equal. There is no difference to them between rubbing a penis and rubbing a toe. It feels different, sure. But so does touching the tip of their nose. The important part is that as they embark on their physical exploration of their body parts, they understand that each part of their body has a function. If a parent wants to talk to a child about their genitals, they can explain that those parts of the bodies have functions, just like the other parts. You use your ears to hear, your hands to grasp and your penis or vulva to urinate.
That’s all they need to know.
Harsh Truth #3: Masturbation is a Form of Self Soothing
The genitals are made to respond to stimulation. The outer portion of both the male and female sex organs are packed with nerve endings. After puberty (hopefully well after puberty), those nerve endings become incredibly important for sexual response. It’s a significant part of the reproduction of the human species. Even in children, those nerve endings are already primed. As such touching one’s genitals feels good and comforting.
The term “comfort” is the key. Adults understand this. Many men, for instance, instinctively slip a hand under their waistband while relaxing and watching the game. If they were accused of doing something sexual they would feel outraged because having a hand in the pubic region is about comfort. It’s the same for kids. Having a hand in their pants can feel as centering as thumb sucking.
Harsh Truth #4: Masturbation is Only a Problem Because of Adult Context
Parents may feel truly shocked if they catch their child exploring and touching their own genitals. But whether a kid is rubbing their vulva or playing with their penis, it is a completely innocent act. Parents don’t see that because their recent experience around genitals is primarily sexual. That is the adult context: the sex organs equal sex. But that’s not the case with kids.
That said, there is an important point here. If a child is inserting an object into themselves, or touching themselves and speaking in a way that feels beyond their years, there might be a problem. It can be a sign that they’ve been introduced to sexual concepts beyond their years. IN the worst cases it can be a sign of sexual abuse. In these instances it would completely appropriate to bring up the behavior to a specialist or pediatrician.
Harsh Truth #5: Kids Will Masturbate by Using the Couch
The thing is that the couch is a safe comforting space. And as a child grows older, they may seek safe comfortable places to engage in their exploration. Girls may straddle pillows and boys might hump them. These things happen and they are completely natural. Freaking out about it won’t help anyone.
That said, maybe direct the child, sans judgement, to the cushions in their own bedroom.
Harsh Truth #6: The Best Reaction to Masturbation at Home is to Ignore It
It’s completely natural for a parent to feel weird about a kid touching themselves. But, again, those emotions are based on adult context. Still, they can be rather strong. That’s why it’s important to take a beat before reacting.
A parent who reacts to a kid touching themselves with shock or horror will affect the way a child understands the body part that they’re touching. The message is: Don’t do that because it’s pleasurable. If not that then they are clued in to the fact that their genitals have a unique power to cause concern. None of these ideas are particularly great for kids. It can drive them to explore even more or cause them to shut down and stop speaking to parents about their body parts.
The better way for a parent to react is to either ignore their kid or send them to a room where they can have privacy. However, it’s important to note that kids under 5 years old will likely struggle with the concept of privacy.
If a child is touching themselves in public, parents should keep themselves calm and try to redirect their kid to an activity that requires them to use their hands, such as putting together a puzzle or doing a craft. Shame, on the other hand, is never advised. It can lead to emotional turmoil for everyone.