I suppose that once little children find their genitals, they never forget where they are. Young kids love to touch them, stroke them, pull on them, and rub them. They don’t care much about the whole public and private behavior thing; all they really care about is that touching their genitals feels good and is very comforting. Little boys will likely begin to masturbate earlier than girls, simply because their genitals are easier to find—given that a boy’s are outside the body and a girl’s are inside. But by age five the girls do catch up.
Infants have the ability to orgasm, but more often than not masturbation serves more of a comforting function. We should regard masturbation as virtually universal in nature, occurring in all societies throughout the world. By now all of the problems previously associated with masturbation have been sufficiently debunked; very few problems are associated with it (except if it is done in public and/or done to excess at the expense of other activities of daily living). In fact, we now know that masturbation provides a number of positive benefits to children and adolescents. It helps the young child to learn about his or her sexual response, helps to relieve stress and anxiety, has been associated with a heightened self-concept and self-esteem, and of course helps to sharpen eye-hand coordination.
When Parents Disapprove
Growing up in a very devout Baptist household, I learned early on that the less I touched my penis, the better off I would be. It was something I just wasn’t supposed to do. My father would admonish me if I touched it through my pants, my preacher and the church-going elders told me to never waste my seed, and even my older brother warned me about touching my penis too much. Needless to say, I had a lot of people warning me about something that all of my regular friends seemed to do a lot of: play with their penises pretty much as often as they could.
Even though the disapproval from the adults in my life couldn’t be ignored, in the end masturbation prevailed. So on one particular evening, there I was, in my bed under the covers, the lights off, a flashlight in my right hand, nudie magazines spread out all around me, propped up on my right elbow and masturbating. Suddenly and without warning, the covers were pulled off and my father was staring down at me with a frown worthy of any criminal caught in the act of something terrible. “Look at what you’re doing,” he growled at me. Then he collected all the nudie magazines, said “This could get you into Hell,” and stomped back to his bedroom to put the magazines back into his dresser drawer where I had found them.
Eventually I was able to look back and laugh at his reaction. But I’m sad to say that this is not just a hilarious story about a quaint attitude of yesteryear. To this day, there are parents who have a tremendous amount of difficulty accepting the fact that their kid masturbates. When I give presentations there are always a fair number of parents who either frown on their child’s masturbation or would prefer they not do it as much as they do. I always share with them my experience with my dad, hoping to give them some insight into the futility of their efforts to get their children to stop. I share with them the considerable amount of guilt and angst that I experienced with my dad and how it stayed with me all throughout my adolescence. I can imagine, however, how hard it must be for those parents who feel as my dad did, experiencing that frustration of dealing with a child who is determined to do something that they don’t want him to do.
Unfortunately for the children of parents who find masturbation unacceptable, their position can pose quite a challenge. The child can’t resist doing it, and the parents spend a lot of time and energy trying to extinguish the behavior. But ultimately the parents will lose simply because masturbation feels too darn good to resist. Sadly, as many of these children continue to masturbate, they become increasingly consumed with guilt because they know their parents disapprove of it.
Contrary to what you might think, masturbation helps to reduce tension and relieve stress, and it helps the young adolescent to better understand his or her sexual responsiveness and preferences. In other words, it helps the child to recognize the sort of sexual excitation that gradually builds as one gets closer and closer to orgasm. It helps children understand what sorts of pressure, speed, and friction are needed in order to stimulate their genitals and cause orgasm. They can engage in it when they feel the need for sexual release, they don’t need a partner to feel sexual pleasure, and, most important, it is very safe—indeed, it is virtually risk free. There is no risk of contracting an infection or disease and no risk of pregnancy.
THERE’S A TIME AND A PLACE
Kids need to hear the message from us that masturbation is a normal and positive part of life. But kids are not helped by parents on the other end of the spectrum who place no restrictions whatsoever on this behavior. Their message is, Just go right to it, as often as you like, almost anywhere or any place, as long as you don’t interfere with other people. The problem with that strategy is that it’s not always okay at any time or in any place. Not only are some of those places public, like our living rooms, but we simply cannot spend our time masturbating when we have responsibilities. While there might be times we’d rather stay home from work, hang out, and pleasure ourselves, we obviously can’t do that, as we have more important matters to take care of.
So if you are a parent who doesn’t want your kids masturbating, you’ve got to back off. Cut your children some slack. If you really can’t come to terms with the reality that your child enjoys masturbation, at least tone down the disapproval level. Say something like, “You know I don’t approve of your masturbation but I also understand why you enjoy doing it. I’m going to try to understand but I need you to also understand that it is against my beliefs. Still, I know it must be difficult to stop.” I guess there really is no perfect response to give if you truly disapprove of the act of masturbation. You need to appreciate, however, that nothing you do will get your kid to stop.
Practice, Practice, Practice
It’s important to realize that kids learn to masturbate in much the same way they learn how to drive a car or cross the street (but without you by their side as they practice!). It is a skill that needs to be learned, and it takes some time and practice to figure it all out. When we add psychological roadblocks to the mix—religious and cultural guilt and outdated fears such as “you’ll run out of sperm”—we just make it all the more difficult for our child.
So we want to start out on the right foot by sending our child affirming messages about masturbation. More than likely, the first time you’ll do this will be through a teachable moment. My guess is you’ll have a whole bunch of teachable moments when it comes to masturbation and your child. That is, you’ll probably “catch” your child touching, rubbing, and holding his or her genitals a number of times and at various ages. Perhaps the very first time you’ll see your child touching his or her genitals will be in infancy, particularly with a boy. You are changing his diaper and your little one starts to play with his penis, which is then followed by an erection. By letting him do it and not moving his hand away, you send one of the earliest affirming messages he will receive about touching his penis and masturbation. You may well have a similar circumstance with your daughter, or perhaps it’ll happen when she’s lying on her stomach and grinding her pelvis into the mattress, or when she is humping her favorite stuffed bear.
And as kids get older and have developed some language skills, when we “catch” them we’ll be able to verbalize our affirmation as well as broach the issue of privacy: “I see you touching and rubbing your penis (or vulva). When you do that it is called masturbation. I imagine that it feels good and Mommy and Daddy don’t mind when you do it. But you need to know that it is a private behavior and you should do it in a private place like your bedroom.” (A little note on what I have just suggested: you should notice that I said vulva and not clitoris. While the clitoris may be a primary body part that is stimulated by women when they masturbate, we do not believe that little girls use it in the same way when they masturbate. Typically we see a more general sort of rubbing against the vulva, perhaps because it simply takes time for young girls to identify where their clitoris is.)
We’ve known for some time now that masturbation actually occurs in utero. We are able to see little male and females fetuses touching and rubbing their genitalia while in their mother’s womb. And all of us parents know that shortly after birth it isn’t long before our little ones once again become reacquainted with their genitals. Kids’ genital explorations are frequently random in nature and provide a pleasurable and calming response for toddlers. Gradually, over time, we begin to see a more purposeful attempt at stimulation. At exactly what age we begin to see a transition from random touching and exploration to a more purposeful attempt to stimulate the genitals is hard to say. We don’t have a whole lot of empirical data to go by, but we might think of it this way. During infancy and throughout the first seven or eight years of life, the behavior is not true masturbation. As genital stimulation becomes increasingly more purposeful, and the child is actively seeking sexual pleasure, the behavior becomes more masturbatory. Certainly when puberty begins and the child progresses into adolescence and gains knowledge, we can safely suggest that the behavior becomes truly sexual in nature and it can be defined as masturbation. Fantasy begins to be included in the masturbatory activity, and the child usually starts to associate distinctly sexual images during his or her masturbatory episodes.
We also know that some boys, during early adolescence, will masturbate together with their peers. There are girls who will do this as well, but we believe that significantly more boys engage in mutualmasturbation than their female counterparts. When masturbation is done mutually it should not necessarily be viewed as an indication that the participants are gay or lesbian. It is fairly common for both boys and girls to engage in some sort of same-sex behavior during adolescence, irrespective of whether they are straight or gay. When you think of kids entering adolescence and the significant awakening of sexual feelings and emotions that occur at this time, it makes total sense that certain young people will have some initial sexual interaction with those peers they are closest to. And young adolescents are typically closest to other kids of the same gender. Think of it as a kind of rehearsal for later sexual involvement. As these new sexual feelings emerge some adolescents will quite naturally act upon these feelings with members of their same-sex peer group. So we can probably safely say that some kids learn how to masturbate from observing and learning from their peers.
TRIAL AND ERROR
Most children learn how to masturbate on their own, just by trial and error. A rub here, a stroke there, a yank and a pull by the hand, humping or grinding the floor or a stuffed toy, slow, then fast, and faster—they find their own particular style, technique, and rhythm. It’s not unusual, however, to refine one’s technique as time goes along. My guess is that most kids learn through personal trial and error what works best for them.
Yes, You Can Teach Them This Too
Regardless of how a child learns to masturbate, as parents we should be ready and able to give some instruction to our children about how to do it. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy or particularly detailed discussion of how to masturbate, but it can be several small conversations about certain techniques.
I am all in favor of suggesting, by the time your child is age eight or nine, that we weave in some mention of technique. For example, you might say, “You remember how Mommy has spoken to you about masturbation? That I think it is fine to do but that it is a private behavior? Well, there are certain ways to masturbate that are perhaps better than others. I find that touching the clitoris and rubbing it with different speeds is a good way to masturbate.” What’s that you’re saying? Do you think I’m a little loony for suggesting this, and you can’t imagine saying something like this to your own daughter or son? I know it can be embarrassing, but if you stop and think about it for a moment it really isn’t any different from teaching your child any other fairly important skill in life. We teach our kids how to eat, brush their teeth, dress themselves, wipe their anus, and blow their nose, so why not masturbation?
Don’t worry that it will make them want to do it any more than they already do. If you’re uncomfortable having this talk, practice your talks with your partner, or in front of a mirror, and make sure you say the sexual words over and over. All of this will help to increase your comfort. I’ll have more to say on the comfort issue in a little bit.
As I sit here and write all this I am smiling to myself as I remember having a discussion with my son when he was nine years old, not about how to masturbate (I had already done that) but rather what he needed to do about cleaning up afterward (important practical information!). I knew he enjoyed playing with his penis on a fairly regular basis and puberty was just around the corner. And I was concerned that as he started to enter puberty he would begin to ejaculate and I wanted to make sure that he didn’t use his pajama bottoms or the bed sheet to wipe up his semen. As he enters puberty, even before a boy can make sperm or semen, he will emit a clear fluid from his penis when he masturbates.
“You know, you’re going to enter puberty pretty soon and your testicles are going to start to make fluid, sperm, and semen,” I said. “So when you masturbate you’re going to have all that fluid come out of your penis. When you do start making that fluid, the first few times you will see that it is clear, and then eventually it will be a milky white color. About a teaspoonful will come out and it will be kind of gooey. You’re going to have to capture it in tissues because I sure don’t want you to use your bed sheet, or your PJs, or some other clothing.”
His reaction was basically, “Yeah, okay, Dad.”
By around age twelve I started to notice that puberty was beginning so I went through my little talk with him again.
“Yeah, yeah, Dad, I know, everything’s good,” he replied.
“Okay, son, I just want to make sure you know.”
Well, as time went along, I would look for the telltale signs—a lot of tissues or toilet paper being used up, or any stains on the bed sheets. All of that was really quite silly on my part, but on a few occasions over the next several years I would kid him about it when his Mom and I would talk to him about cleaning up his room. I would say, “Pick up this, pick up that,” and then finish by saying, “And make sure there’s no semen on your bed sheets!” He’d always just roll his eyes and smile. He’s seventeen now, but I still kid him that I don’t want to see semen on the sheets.
I think it’s great for a dad to talk to the son and for a mom to talk to the daughter initially about the masturbation process. But I also see no reason why the opposite gender parent can’t make a comment or two along the way, as unprecedented or controversial as that may sound. So long as the conversation stays matter-of-fact, neither joking nor inappropriate, I think it’s fine. This type of conversation is the reality for many single parents and gay or lesbian parents. If you are a single parent or gay and lesbian parent who finds yourself in the position of being the opposite gender of your child, I urge you to try to find a trusted, open-minded adult confidant of the same gender as your child to have periodic discussions about masturbation as well as other aspects of sex and sexuality with your child. If your younger child has a significantly older, same-gender sibling, avoid using him or her to teach the younger one, because the older child might tease or not approach the whole thing in the way an adult would.
How Much Is Too Much?
I’ve had my fair share of phone calls over the years from prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers concerned about students who were masturbating excessively. We see a lot of masturbatory behavior among this age group simply because many children this age have not learned sexual modesty and so they do it in public. Some of the calls are an overreaction on the teacher’s part—they just don’t want their students masturbating in class. But then there are those calls that present a student whose masturbation really is problematic. That is, the behavior occurs frequently, not only during rest times but even during classroom activities that should be keeping the students busy, including times when the entire class is working together. Many of these students stay actively engaged in the class activity but keep on masturbating.
When we see this sort of behavior it is often because the child isn’t even aware of his or her masturbatory behavior. In all likelihood the child is masturbating simply because it is soothing and comforting but at the same time he or she is locked into the learning process and is not aware of the behavior. Sometimes we will see children doing it for just the opposite reasons. Because they are bored or not tuned into the learning process and the masturbation serves as a way to deal with that boredom.
The majority of students that I am called to consult on are masturbating in class for these two reasons, and when the behavior is brought to their attention it will usually stop in time. Of course, the teacher would alert the child’s parents and solicit their support prior to speaking to the child. It is very important that the parents play a role in helping to extinguish the behavior. So the teacher might say to the student, “You are touching or rubbing your penis (or your vulva) in class. I know that feels good but the classroom is not the place to be doing that. If I see you doing it I will say your name and that will be the sign for you to stop.” The parents can remind their child of the expected behavior each morning before school: “Now remember what we expect of you. You should not touch or rub your penis (or vulva) in the classroom.” With the helpful reminders provided by the teacher and parents, along with any appropriate positive rewards, the child usually gains control of his or her behavior and the masturbation ceases.
When classroom masturbatory behavior is more difficult to extinguish, it usually occurs when the child is experiencing some sort of anguish in her life. There is something that is disturbing to the child; perhaps there is disharmony in the home or the child is in an abusive environment. The masturbatory behavior is serving as a way to release pent-up stress and anxiety or is a manifestation of an abusive event. In all likelihood a referral to an appropriate mental health provider would be required.
As your child grows older and enters puberty, masturbation becomes more sexual in nature, with the goal being orgasm. Many times I have stood in front of a class of ten-year-old fifth graders and spoken about masturbation and orgasm. Most of them know about masturbation. They may not know the term, but if I describe the behavior they know what I am talking about: “Masturbation is when a girl or a boy touches, rubs, or strokes their genitals or private parts in a way that makes them feel good.”
Once, when I had to describe to the class what it is, one boy shouted out, “Oh yeah, Dr. Fred, choking the chicken” (another reminder for parents to teach proper names). But I can tell that most all of them know about masturbation by the look on their faces. Most of them break out in big smiles and then start whispering among themselves. Sometimes, if they ask, I’ll get fairly specific as to exactly how one would masturbate: “A boy or man will usually stroke his penis up and down using different speeds; and a girl or woman will rub the area around her clitoris, which is very sensitive. Sometimes she’ll go slow and other times will speed up.” Admittedly, I often have to describe what the clitoris is by saying, “The clitoris is a part of a woman’s body that is located just above the opening of her vagina. While most of the clitoris extends inside the woman’s body, the part that she can actually see is called the glans and is on average the size of a pea. It is very sensitive when touched.”
I will also lay out some boundaries and some values, to get them thinking on a personal level, by saying, “It is normal to masturbate and it is normal not to masturbate. Some people believe masturbation is perfectly fine to do, and some believe one should not do it. You should find the strength to have a discussion about masturbation with your parents, find out what their beliefs are about the behavior, and have them share their values about it with you.”
Enter the Orgasm
When I discuss orgasm with kids, far fewer seem to have an understanding. While many ten-year-olds have likely had an orgasm, it’s common for them not to appreciate what it was they actually experienced until they become more acquainted with it. As masturbation becomes more purposeful and deliberate, orgasm will follow and should become more plentiful. I generally define the term by stating, “An orgasm can occur if the boy or girl strokes or rubs his penis or her clitoris. An orgasm is an incredible feeling that originates in and around the genitals or private parts and lasts for about eight to ten seconds. And the feeling is really amazing.” One time, a student raised his hand and asked, “But what is the feeling really like?” I thought for a moment and replied, “Well, you know what it feels like to have to sneeze and you can’t? And you keep getting close to sneezing as you try again and again, but you still can’t? And then finally your sneeze comes, and your whole body feels like it’s exploding and it’s all amazing? Well, that is kind of like an orgasm, only the orgasm is better, and it lasts a lot longer.” I suppose there may be a better way to describe an orgasm but I’ve yet to come up with one. If you can think of one, please let me know.
Even when one engages in mutual masturbation the risk of harm to one’s health is minimal compared to oral, vaginal, or anal sex. I believe it is totally appropriate to have a discussion about mutual masturbation with your ten-year-old daughter or son when discussing other forms of mutual sex behavior. When I do a risk-benefit analysis with students of the different forms of sexual interaction one can have, mutual masturbation always beats out the different forms of intercourse because it poses the least possible risk and harm. That is, if you are going to share sexual intimacy with another person, masturbation will get you into less trouble than any of the intercourse behaviors. Nevertheless, I always point out the one major risk from mutual masturbation, which is of course the turn-on factor. When it is done in an undisciplined manner, it can certainly lead to intercourse. One thing I always hear from teenagers who start out wanting to remain abstinent until adulthood but end up having sexual intercourse as a teen is that “one thing leads to another.” Therefore, I also always discuss mutual masturbation in the same context as the different forms of intercourse—that is, that one needs to be an adult and have love, respect, and trust as a foundation to one’s relationship with another before ever considering engaging in intimate sexual behavior.
Using Pornography and Fantasy
When people masturbate, many will usually use some sort of fantasy or set of images that provides a stimulus or turn-on effect. In short, they help us to reach orgasm quicker than we would without them. I bring this issue up because as parents we may need to be concerned with the sorts of sexual images our child is masturbating to. I want you to think for a moment about the possible effects that masturbating to certain images might have on people over time, particularly a young teen. If the images one masturbates to are devoid of a loving emotional component, portray women as objects, or incorporate violence or blatantly debasing forms of sexual interaction, what are the possible consequences over time? It doesn’t matter whether these images come in the form of explicit visuals, as in video or pictures, or in the form of images we create in our minds through fantasy. The more one masturbates using these sorts of images the greater the likelihood that the behaviors depicted in them will become a source of sexual arousal. So if one masturbates to, say, a set of images that depict forced sex, then the behavior of forcing someone to have sex becomes sexually arousing.
Masturbating to sexually explicit images is likely to have a reinforcing effect, which can serve to condition a person to want to see more and more of the same images. As a person fantasizes the same images during subsequent masturbatory episodes, he will frequently put himself into the fantasy. In other words, he becomes a participant in his own fantasy. Obviously, the long-term concern is whether the person will at some point make his fantasy a reality. There have been very few studies of the effects of sexually explicit or pornographic images on young people. Studies with adult populations inform us that pornography is more like a fuel that gets put on a fire.1 There is usually some predisposition already present that makes someone more prone to act a certain way, and the pornography becomes the trigger. For example, before committing a sexual offense, pedophiles will frequently “fuel” themselves by watching child porn.
I suppose the big issue for us as parents is how we should buffer our children from any possible negative side effects that could exist from viewing and fantasizing about certain sexually explicit images. I think most adults would agree that any prolonged watching of any sexually explicit material, especially material that does portray violence or images of debasement, can be potentially unhealthy for young people. Most parents would have a problem if their child masturbated to these sorts of images, whether by watching explicit material or by conjuring images through fantasy. None of us, for example, wants our kids turning on to thoughts or images of forced sex.
So exactly what should be our role in all of this? Well, I think we can screen and monitor our child’s access to sexually explicit material for only so long. Through our vigilance we should be able to do a fairly good job up to and including our child’s middle school years. Once our kids get into high school this becomes a little bit harder to do. You’ve already heard me discuss our roles in monitoring what our children are exposed to and how we can best help them to make sense of their sexualized wall of messages. This is no different. If we do what I have prescribed earlier in our attempts to be approachable, by the time they are older and do have access to pornography they will be able to deal with it responsibly.
So by age ten we should be having some discussion about the world of sexually explicit videos and pictures out there on the Internet, on cable and pay per view, and in print: “It’s important that you understand that there are so many videos, movies, and pictures that show people having sex that are available over the Internet, TV, and in magazines. Dad (or Mom) believes that a lot of it is just garbage. They show a lot of men and women as being kind of sex crazed. What I mean by that is it makes them seem like they can’t get enough sex, or they show men hurting women and taking advantage of them, or they show men and women having sex without love, and there are even movies that are pretty weird, showing things like people having sex with animals, or grown-ups having sex with kids. It’s just garbage and we wouldn’t want you to ever watch it.”
I don’t think you need to say much more than that at age ten. Probably the strongest buffer you can provide your child is through your parenting style. Being that authoritative parent is so important because you will be setting boundaries for your child regarding what is right and wrong, good and bad. As your child gets into middle school you will want to continue your discussion of sexually explicit and pornographic material. You will continue to reinforce your concerns for how these images distress you and you will also discuss how people will sometimes masturbate while looking at them: “I’ve spoken to you before about sexually explicit stuff on the Internet and in magazines that are out there. I hope you are not looking at any. So much of it is not what sex between people who love each other is really like.” You can also mention fantasy during masturbation. You don’t need to ask your child if he or she fantasizes during masturbation. Rather, you can make some remark that is more indirect but gets your point across: “If you think of sexy things when you masturbate, I hope it’s not anything weird—you know, anything hurtful or dangerous.” Leave it at that for now, but feel free to revisit the subject in little talks like these as time goes along.
Our talk about masturbation has led us to related subjects and brought us to the middle school years. Now we need to backtrack. The next chapter is all about preparing children for puberty and helping them through it. Your preparation phase starts with age eight and continues through ages nine and ten—reaching the threshold of middle school.