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How to Talk to Kids About Masturbation

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Updated June 19, 2013

If you’re ready to take responsibility for raising sexually healthy kids, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to talk to your kids about masturbation. It might be early on when they’re self-soothing by touching themselves (something all kids do and something that isn’t “sexual” in the way that you as an adult thinks about things being sexual or not); it might be after someone makes a joke or comment in a movie or TV show; it might be after you see someone exposing themselves and masturbating in public.

There is no scientific debate about masturbation: it’s perfectly healthy, it’s something almost every child does in infancy, and most people continue to masturbate as adults. For what it’s worth, sex educators and sex therapists consider masturbation to be a key tool in developing the capacity to feel sexual pleasure and the ability to know oneself sexually.

Talking to kids about masturbation doesn’t mean telling them whether they should or shouldn’t do it, or how they should do it. It means giving them some basic information and then helping them understand your values and beliefs about it and how you arrived at them. It also means providing a social context, so they understand how other people think and talk about masturbation outside the home and in the media.

What follows is not THE WAY to talk about masturbation, it’s one way. If you haven’t already, you might want to start with these general tips for talking with kids about sex.

Define masturbation. Most people think of masturbation as touching your genitals for sexual arousal and satisfaction. That’s one very grown up definition. But there’s a broader, and better, way to define masturbation that may make more sense when you’re talking to younger kids. Here’s one example:

“Masturbation is a way of doing something nice for yourself and making yourself feel good. It usually means touching yourself and/or thinking nice things. Of course there’s lots of things we can do to feel good, like playing with friends or when we read a story together. Masturbation is different from those because you do it on your own in private, and you do it just for yourself.”

Obviously if you were going to use a definition like this you’d change the words and examples, but the point is that, particularly for younger kids who don’t have the same mental constructions of what is sexual and what isn’t, a very general but to-the-point definition can be more helpful. One of the magical things about giving such a direct answer is that it usually disarms the questioner and makes them think a while if they even want to ask another question. A lot of kids won’t want to know more, and the ones that do will ask.

Address values and beliefs. Most parents hope, and assume, that their children will share their values on things like religion, politics, and sexuality. The truth is that your children’s values develop over time as a result of many influences. The best thing you can do is articulate your values and explain why you hold them. Exposing them to other ways of thinking doesn’t hurt. In fact it can help them make more informed decisions.

Consider a non-sexual example. Let’s say that you hate tofu, that as a child you had an overzealous vegetarian parent and a very traumatic experience with tofu. So you never eat tofu at home. One day your child comes home and asks “what’s tofu, and how come we never have it?” You probably wouldn’t respond by saying in a scary voice “tofu is terrible, it’s bad for you, I never eat it and you shouldn’t eat it either!” Hopefully you’d explain that you don’t like tofu so you don’t eat it at home, but lots of other people eat tofu, sometimes several times a day, and when your child begins to cook on their own, they may want to cook with tofu. Talking about sex isn’t the same as talking about nutrition, but maybe you can see where I’m going with this.

Give them a context. One of the best things you can do to counteract the confusing and contradictory nature of sexual messaging is to help your kids develop the skills they need to see through the highly sexualized marketing of everything from consumer goods like toys and clothes to things like education, friendships, and ones basic sense of self. You can start doing this at an early age by giving them the larger social context of sexual activities and issues, like masturbation. Consider the common example of having to explain to your child why you don’t want them to touch themselves in public.

If all you say is “because, that’s why” or even “because you don’t do that in public” you’re not really giving them anything. Kids aren’t born with an understanding of how screwed up adults are about sexuality, we need to explain that part to them. So you might do that by saying something like:

“There are all sorts of things we do in private. We don’t use the toilet in public, we go to the bathroom; we don’t get undressed and go to bed in the middle of the street, we do it in our bedrooms. There are even different kinds of private. You know how you feel when you’re alone in your room? That’s one kind of private. But then there’s also when we’re alone together reading a story, which feels different from when you’re at school and hearing a story with your teacher and everyone in class…”

Again, this isn’t meant to be a script to follow, just some ideas of how some people talk to their kids about sex. Depending on your child’s comprehension it may also be a time to talk about what to do when you want to be alone and someone keeps intruding, and about your right to say “I want to be alone, leave me alone” and have people respect you by doing what you ask.

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