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Let’s talk about really young kids… and masturbation

By March 27, 2021No Comments

Occupational therapist Sarah Sproule on how to talk to your children about sex, their genitals, and boundaries…


Does reading that headline freak you out? 

It’s normal if it does and to be honest, I was trying to raise your blood pressure just a bit.

You see, some of the most common questions I get from people raising kids are along these lines: 

“How do I talk to my 6.5 yr old boy who quite often humps on the sofa…”

“My 5 year old has a habit of rubbing her vulva/vagina in her sleep…”

“My daughter has been a keen masturbator since she was two…”

It’s quite a common part of family life.

And even if you don’t have a kid that does this, you might still want to read on, because having ongoing, comfortable conversations about all sort of things like genitals, puberty, pleasure and sex is an important way for adults to support every growing kid to find the skills, information and support they need for their developing sexuality. 

Many of us have had experiences of awkward, shame-y conversations with the adults around us when we were growing up. If you want something different for your kid(s), here are four ways to approach the topic of masturbation. We can talk so kids learn that their body is awesome and it’s meant to feel good. Plus, we can teach them what’s appropriate and safe behaviour in the context of our family and society as a whole.

Children are sexual beings. 

Before having kids, you might not have thought that kids were sexual, but they are.

Our kids are born with the beginnings of their sexuality in place and it slowly evolves (and then changes more quickly during puberty) throughout the whole of their lives.

If we don’t talk about sexuality with the small people we’re raising, it’s essentially omitting to talk about a normal, everyday developmental part of being human. And we all know that ignoring parts of us or worse, shaming those parts causes immense suffering in childhood and beyond.

None of us want our kids to feel ashamed. Or to make up wildly inaccurate stories for things they are curious about that we don’t talk about. Or even ask their friends for explanations. 

Practical tip: Think about your kids sexuality just like you think about their ability to play sport or develop good table manners. It’s something they need your help with. 

Prioritise ongoing conversations or activities about sexuality in general. For example, reading books about babies or pointing out teachable moments in everyday life (there’s a picture of two adults kissing, there’s a pregnant person) so your kid(s) learn that your family talks about the private parts of the body and sex.

When kids touch their genitals, it’s not just about their sexuality. It can also just be soothing for them by creating sensations in their body that feel the nicest. 

I’m going to be honest. Masturbation helps me fall asleep when I’ve got a lot on at work and my mind won’t settle. And I know I’m not alone.

It can work the same way for our small kids. Just like some of us need that release before our minds can shut off for the night, our kids can find  those sensations calming too.

Whether they rub themselves against a pillow or soft toy or use their hands, the feelings that result from their genitals can feel relaxing.

But genital touch is not always about going to sleep. Sometimes our kids seek that experience because it’s a relief, like scratching an itch, or waiting for a sneeze. There is simply something in their body that needs that feeling. And each human body has a different need for sensation and movement. 

Some children unconsciously hum a tune while they play.

Some kids jump up and down while they are waiting in line.

Some children are generally still and quiet.

Along those same lines, some kids touch their genitals a lot. And some kids hardly touch the middle parts of their body at all. It’s just another way that our kids show their individuality.

Practical tip: Take a moment to really think about your child. Open a note on your phone or grab a pen and paper to journal on the following questions:

What does your child do with their body that makes them different to you or their sibling(s)? 

What do they do that is similar to you and other family members?

Remember, whether or not you have memories of touching your genitals as a child, your growing kid is normal whether they touch their penis or clitoris or not.

Talking about genital touching is a great way for our kids to learn that their genitals are just for them. Genitals feel different to other parts of our body. And we treat them differently too. Our face and hands are parts of our body that everyone sees, but our genitals are private and just for ourselves.

Here are the main points to get across to your kid so they understand that their middle parts are just for them. Remember, we aren’t making them scared or creating a taboo, we are focusing on the joy of their genitals and reminding them there are boundaries around them too.

  1. Our genitals are an awesome part of our body
  2. They feel interesting to touch
  3. You are allowed to touch your penis or vulva/clitoris because it belongs to you
  4. You do that when you are in the bathroom or your bedroom
  5. But kids don’t touch other people’s genitals even if you feel curious about them
  6. And other people don’t touch your genitals either
  7. You might have lots of questions about genitals and feel really curious, that’s normal
  8. You can ask me anything and we have books about genitals too

Conversations need to happen over and over and over again. If your parenting experience is like mine, you find yourself repeating the same pearls of wisdom over and over and over again.

“Don’t forget to put on your bike helmet!”

“Use a spoon to eat your dinner, not your hands…”

“Please pick up your dirty clothes and put them in the laundry basket… I’m being driven out of my mind by all these dirty socks!”

And teaching our growing kid(s) about their body and the way to respect the bodies of the people around them is no different. Repetition is our friend in parenting. Even if it makes you feel like a broken record. Every time your child puts their hand down their trousers or rubs their middle parts against the couch it’s time to say, “Your penis/vulva (or clitoris – whichever word you feel comfortable using) is a wonderful part of your body AND you can choose either your bedroom or the bathroom as the place to go to rub them. It’s something we do in private.”

The important part of that sentence is “That’s a wonderful part of your body.”  

We keep reinforcing how fabulous genitals are in order to counteract the silence and negativity about genitals that our child might hear at school or in other people’s homes. We are constantly letting our child know that, in our house, we are happy to talk about things to do with genitals, sex and other sensitive stuff. Because when we do that, our child knows that questions or statements about these topics are something they are welcome to bring to us. At the end of the day, we are showing our child how to respect their own needs, take care of their body and mind all the while respecting the needs of people around them.

And the needs of the people around them is a very important part of this equation: I don’t want to see a kid rubbing their genitals while I’m microwaving yesterday’s leftover pizza for my breakfast. When adults speak up clearly about the rules of the house and their boundaries in a non-shamed way, it gives kids the opportunity to learn what it feels like to hear someone ask for what they need without manipulation.

And listening to what other people need is an oft forgotten part of teaching consent. 

Go well, wonderful. 

Let’s continue to do our best to raise kids who understand their body, speak up for themselves and respect the needs of the people around them.

@iamsarahsproule on Twitter and Instagram.

Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash