This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog.
How do you teach your kids to feel good and okay with sex... and still teach them the basic social norms about sex that they'll need in order to function in the world?
I got a letter from reader the other day, asking this question:
My daughter, who is 4, has begun masturbating; and it freaks me the hell out.
I'm as sure as a parent can be that she's never seen it happen before, and that she's not been molested. I'm pretty sure she just figured it out on her own. But I have no idea what to do! I've always been more of the Brave New World approach that children should not be made to feel ashamed of their sexuality... But 4???
I tried to make her stop by telling her that's where she peepees, and so it's dirty (I know, loaded word); but she totally Freaks Out angry when I stop her.
I feel very confused, and quite a bit nervous that I'll get blamed for something terrible if I approach someone else with this.
So here's my reply.
First, I feel compelled to say this: I am not a trained expert in child psychology or child sexuality. And I'm not a parent. I'm getting a lot of my info from people who are trained experts and parents... but I'm not one myself. (If you want to seek more information from experts about talking with your kids about sex, I can strongly advise the Planned Parenthood Resources for Parents webpage... and I fervently recommend their Human Sexuality -- What Children Need to Know and When page, a resource that all parents everywhere should be clicking on right this second.)
That prologue out of the way, the very, very first thing I want to say is this:
There is nothing even remotely strange about the fact that a four- year- old child is masturbating. That is completely, 100% normal. Extremely common, even. Some children begin touching their genitals as young as three months old. It's not a sign that she's been molested, or that she's seen other people masturbate, or anything else scary or inappropriate. It's a sign that she's a healthy child exploring her body. (My earliest memory of masturbating was when I was about 6 or 7; and in that memory, the experience was already familiar, something I'd been doing for a while.)
And IMO, there's nothing strange about the fact that she gets mad when you try to stop her. I mean, if someone in a position of great power and authority over me tried to stop me from masturbating, I'd get freaked out angry, too.
It seems to me that your problem isn't that your child is masturbating. It's that she's masturbating in front of you, and possibly in front of other people, in ways that makes those people (including you) uncomfortable.
So let's deal with that problem.
I get that this is a difficult situation. I get that, no matter how okay you are with sex in your own life, dealing with your own children's sexuality can be seriously uncomfortable. I get what a tricky balance it is to teach your children a healthy, positive attitude about sex and still maintain good boundaries.
But I think your instincts about not wanting to teach your daughter that her genitals are dirty, or that masturbation is dirty, are absolutely 100% spot-on. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: Please, for the sweet love of Loki, do not tell her that her genitals are dirty or that it's dirty to touch them. I'm not quite down with the Brave New World scenario; but teaching your daughter that masturbation and genitals are dirty is absolutely not going to help her grow up with a good image of herself and her sexuality.
Instead, I'd teach her that they're private.
I'd be inclined to say something along these lines: "It's fine that you do that. Most people do that, and it's fine, there's nothing wrong with it. But that's something that you should do when you're alone, in private. That's a part of your body and a part of your life that people usually keep to themselves, or share privately with particular people. It's not something we do in front of everybody, and it's not something kids and adults do together. That's not because it's dirty or bad or something to be ashamed of. It's just because we keep some parts of our lives private -- and for most people, that's one of them."
If she seems confused by this, you could talk with her about other things that people keep private, even though they're good, happy things that we aren't ashamed of. Some possible examples: We don't always talk about our deepest feelings with everybody: we tell them to our family and closest friends. Some people have private jokes or games that they like to keep special for certain people. Some kids -- and even some adults -- have secret words or languages that only their best friends know. Etc. Get her to come up with examples. I bet you that she can.
You might even talk with her about why people keep some things private. The answer to that question varies from person to person and from culture to culture, so I can't tell you what to say... but I can tell you what I'd say if it were me. I might explain that keeping some things private is a way to keep some relationships special. I might explain that when people see something as private and special, it makes them uncomfortable when someone they don't know very well shares it with them or does it in front of them. I might even ask her if she's ever had anyone tell her something that she really didn't want to know -- not because it was dirty or bad, but because it was too personal. (It's never too early to explain the concept of TMI. Especially with kids growing up in the Facebook generation.)
And I'd definitely, absolutely, without question explain that masturbation and touching genitals is something that adults don't want to do with kids or have kids do in front of them -- since that's something that bad grownups do to hurt kids, and good grownups don't want to do it. (If you haven't already had the "don't let anyone touch your genitals if you don't want it, your body belongs to you and nobody has a right to touch it in ways you don't like, and if anyone tries to do that you have to tell me right away" talk with her, now's the time to do it.)
You can discuss the finer points later, as she grows up. You can explain about privacy's shades of grey, and how different people are comfortable with different levels of sexual privacy. You can explain how respect for sexual privacy is part of respect for sexual consent. You can talk about the question of whether the desire for sexual privacy is a cultural norm, or a hard-wired part of the human social mind, or a combination of both. You can discuss the difference between talking about sex in public, and having sex in public. You could even explain why some people write blogs discussing details of their personal sex lives with thousands of total strangers (ahem!)... but don't want their families to read them.
But for now, "Some good things are private, and touching your genitals is one of of them" should do.