A matter of masturbation
It’s only natural for toddlers to explore all their body parts – isn’t it? Suki Lock investigates.
(Gavin Lock)
I knew the day would come when I would walk in on my son playing with his privates. Naïvely, I thought he would be a teenager and I would be wiser. I was unprepared for a 2-year-old, comfortably stretched out on the couch – hand on jewels – oblivious to the distress I felt.

Talking to other parents

I needed to know: am I alone? I asked around and it became clear that my toddler is not the only one. Liza shrugged and said ‘boys will be boys.’ Michelle assured me that there’s nothing sexual about it.

One mom shuddered, “please don’t tell me I’ll have to deal with that.” Dads had a different reaction; usually a ‘that’s my boy!’

Only boys then?

No – although it does seem that boys do become aware of their genitalia earlier, simply because penises are easier to find. According to Michelle Viglianco-VanPelt and Kyla Boyse , boys often find their penises around the age of 6 months, possibly during a nappy change, while girls tend to become aware of their vulva (external female genitalia) at around 10 months old.

Is this normal?

Exploring the body is part of any child’s development. As little babies become aware of their hands, fingers and toes, at some point their exploration expands to include their genitalia. Although this can put us, their parents, in an awkward position, there is seldom anything sexual about this act.

Children are unaware of any sexual implications; this kind of playing is about feeling good. In his book, Toddler Taming, Dr. Christopher Green (former head of child development at the New Children’s Hospital in Sydney), mentions that at the age of two, 56% of boys and girls rub or play with their genitals. By three it drops to 49%, but picks up again to 51% by the age of four.
Panic stations

So what should you do when you discover your toddler masturbating? First: stay calm. Remember that to your child this act is no different from toe-rubbing or thumb-sucking. It is more pleasurable, but it is also comforting.

Explaining to a child under 3 about private areas and things only done at home can be impossible, so if it happens in public, find a way to distract them. Have a toy handy or play some clapping games. A comfort toy or security blanket may relieve the need for masturbation in public, as children often use it as a way of self-soothing.

At home it is probably best to ignore masturbation. Some people move their children to their rooms when it happens, to instil an ‘only in your room’ attitude, similar to potty training. Gently remind them that this is a private act, but this will probably only start making a difference when they are older. Rest assured that this exploration will not turn them into sex maniacs, make them go blind or stunt their growth.

When do I worry?

If your child wants to touch other children, or be touched themselves – or if the activity suddenly increases above its original level, interfering with normal activities, seek professional advice. Keep an eye out for scratching rather than rubbing, or signs of pain, as these could indicate a medical condition, such as an infection.

Most important is to act with care. Dr Benjamin Spock cautions that harsh words like ‘that’s nasty’ could lead your child to associate the sensation with disapproval. Although the long-term effects of early stage punishment are unclear, he says, ‘I would be concerned that harsh punishments during infancy could cause difficulties in adult sexual function later on.’

How do you handle it when your child touches his or her genitals?

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