Unless you're a sex therapist or in possession of multitudes less puritanical guilt than I have, there's no great way to avoid feeling awkward when you talk to your kids about masturbation. It's one of those tough talks that seems easier to avoid than accomplish, even if you know that's the wrong attitude. Is there a way to discuss it with open communication to dispel the mutual weirdness? There must be a strategy of how to talk about masturbation without shaming your child that isn't throwing a bunch of pamphlets at them and running away, as I'm tempted to do.
There's a lot of negative and harmful discussion revolving around kids and masturbation. I remember being told by my religion teacher in school that masturbation was a tool for the devil to incite you to lust and sin. This led me to a lot of confusion about what was and wasn't moral and safe. It made the very natural act of masturbation feel dirty and shameful to me. It wasn't until I broke from the rigors of that doctrine that I understood the sex positive power of masturbation. That's not how I want it to go for my kids. I want them to lead a safe, healthy, sexual life — whatever that means for them. I don't want masturbation to be about risk versus reward or considered a dirty pleasure.
That doesn't mean that it's going to be easy to discuss. I want to bury my head in the sand as much as the next parent when it comes to my kids' sex lives, but I can't do that and be a good parent.
I spoke to Amanda Davis Ed.D., and asked her how to talk about masturbation without shaming your child, because, honestly, I'm working from grade zero, here and I'm out of my element. She tells Romper that it's an essential part of your child's sexual education, and the one that needs to be discussed the earliest, because kids find out about their bodies quicker than you might anticipate.
Davis notes that children typically start experimenting with self touch around age 3. While that may sound young to you, it's not. They're not touching themselves in the way that you or I would, but instead experiment. It's typically at bath time or perhaps while they're watching television. You may not even realize it's what they're doing — they'll just seem flushed and distracted. "At this age," Davis says, "you just want to reinforce the need for privacy when they're experimenting. You might want to say things like 'It's OK that you touch your penis or vulva, but no one else can, and you should only do it when you're alone.'" She adds that much more complex conversations about self stimulation would likely go over their heads.
When they're very little, just allow them to explore — they're going to anyway. Assure them that you're not going to bother them, and that you're not ashamed. Also, "use the right words for their body parts: penis, vulva, vagina. It might not seem important, but it helps them develop meaningful language for their sexual health moving forward," says Davis.
She also notes that it's important to create a sex-positive environment. Be honest with your child as they get older. "Let them know you're not just going to barge into their room at night or while they shower." Your kids need a safe space to explore their bodies and their reactions away from you and protected from you. "Educate older children and teens so that they know that masturbation is an act of self love that is safe and promotes awareness of their own bodies."
Davis tells Romper that it's often the parents who are more uncomfortable with the discussion than the children. If you actively maintain a sex-positive household, then your children will have fewer hangups about sex and masturbation than you do, which can only improve things going forward. "Really look at how you feel about talking about masturbation and sex, and determine where and how you can improve. If you're feeling shame about it, they will. You may need to discover and break through your own shame before you can keep it from your kids."
I want my kids to have positive attitudes about sex and their own bodies, and I know that masturbation has proven beneficial for overall sexual health and self-esteem, which I want for my children. I just have to put on my big girl shoes and move past my own history so that they can have a better future.
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