Self-pleasuring is a natural and healthy part of a child's development and begins in early childhood. For toddlers, self-pleasuring is a common and natural method of soothing themselves when they are tired. Most children develop a sense of privacy and sexual modesty within the first years of elementary school, but will gladly masturbate in public full view before that unless encouraged not to do so earlier. Encouraging privacy is fine, but shaming the child for touching herself is not. Any sex educator can tell you that. But how about teaching your child the nuts and bolts of masturbating to help her improve her masturbation techniques?
Knowing what to say "no" to begins with knowing what to say "yes" to. Recognizing and avoiding sexual behavior and activity that feel unwanted and negative, begins with knowing what feels right and good to you. Sex educator Dr. Laura Berman, the author of several books, including Talking To Your Kids About Sex: Turning "The Talk" Into A Conversation For Life, encourages parents to equip children with adequate information and equipment to allow them to masturbate well. (Dr. Berman, who now hosts her own sex advice program at the Oprah Winfrey Network, spoke regularly at the Oprah Winfrey Show when it aired, including on how to talk to kids about masturbation; see for instance this video from an Oprah episode where Dr. Berman gives advice to a mom concerned with her four-year-old masturbating: hint, it's normal). Writes Dr. Berman about teaching teenage girls about masturbation:
While self-stimulation is simple and straightforward for a young boy, girls don't
have it so easy. They might not know how or where to stimulate themselves, and
though this doesn't exactly leap into your mind as something you want your
teenage daughter to know, it can help her to work through sexual thoughts and
feelings without engaging in unsafe sex. You might want to have a candid talk
with her about exploring or learning about her body or even offer her a simple
clitoral vibrator. (Don't worry, it doesn't have to be a large toy or a toy that is
actually inserted into the vagina.) Tell her that a lot of girls enjoy touching their
vulvas and bringing themselves to orgasm, as this can help to remove the stigma
or shame she might be feeling regarding it. Let her know that it is okay and,
indeed, important for her to understand her own body and sexual response. Show
her a picture of her genitals, and encourage her to look at her own genitals in a
handheld mirror. Remind her that masturbation is a safe, natural way to relieve
strong sexual feelings, safely and without risk of STDs or pregnancy.
In a memorable episode of the American comedy show Weeds, uncle Andy gives a lesson in how to masturbate well to one of his nephews, explaining that "practice makes perfect so work on your control now while you’re a solo artist and you’ll be playing some long happy duets in the future.”
If you're not quite comfortable following uncle Andy's model or even Dr. Berman's advice, there are still things you can and should consider saying. Writes The Mama Sutra who specializes in normalizing conversations about sex and sexuality between parents and their children:
Typically, lots of parents of girls either don’t talk about masturbation or they tell their daughters “don’t do it.” Whereas parents of boys tend to adopt a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude on the subject, unless it comes up, and then they might say “boys will be boys” and may look the other way. Here’s the thing: you as the parent are entitled to have your own views and opinions on this topic. Obviously. If you do not believe it’s ok to masturbate and wish to share that with your children, that’s your right as the parent. You should share that as your belief / values (religious or otherwise), but make sure to give accurate, factual information about masturbation as well. No, hair will NOT grow on your palms. No, you will NOT go blind. No, it won’t hurt you. [...]
Bottom line, parents who shame their children around masturbation are really messing with their kids’ heads. If parents tell their children things that are not true about masturbation, it creates a huge amount of anxiety and/or cognitive dissonance (a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously) in the children; ”I’m not supposed to do this touching myself thing, but it feels so good!” I understand it isn’t anything parents want to talk about with their children; however, it goes right along with teaching them about the changes that occur in their bodies as they grow. I can’t imagine how freaked out I would be if I was a boy and woke up after a wet dream but had no idea if that was normal. It’s an uncomfortable conversation but it’s totally ok to acknowledge such. If it fits for you, you can say, “my mom/dad/parent didn’t talk to me about this and I kinda wish they did. I’m nervous now talking to you about this but I want to be here for you because there’s a lot of information out there and not all of it is good. I want you to have the correct answers. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll go find out and get back to you.”
Concludes Fred Kaeser, Ed.D., the former director of health for the NYC Department of Education, and the author of What Your Child Needs To Know About Sex (And When), regarding the importance of talking to your kids about masturbation:
There's a fair amount of research now on the overall benefits of masturbation. We know that masturbation helps a child come to learn and understand their own sexual response pattern, helps them to sharpen their body imagery, and might actually heighten a child's sense of self and self-esteem. It helps to reduce tension and stress both psychically and physiologically. [...] We know that it is the most risk free sexual behavior assuming it's not done in public or at the exclusion of other activities of daily living, and can be a phenomenal way of experiencing sexual pleasure and serve as an alternative to mutual sex encounters when needed. Thinking about all this makes me wonder if we shouldn't try and spend a little more time with our kids talking about this most useful of sexual behaviors. Rather than just taking for granted that our kids will learn on their own all there is to know about masturbation, will develop a healthy attitude and stance towards it, and find the proper place for it in their lives, maybe each of us could benefit from becoming more of a masturbation educator.
Of course, you will feel much more comfortable as a masturbation educator if you have already established an open and positive line of communication with your child about the body and sexual development. Experts recommend you turn "The Talk" into an ongoing conversation that begins in early childhood and continues through puberty. Talk soon, talk often recommends a new resource guide developed to help parents initiate regular and relaxed conversations with their children about sexuality and relationships. Published by the Australian Department of Health, the resource guide translates easily to an American context. The guide is available as a FREE downloadable PDF-file: Talk Soon Talk Often. A guide for parents talking to their kids about sex (PDF 2.25MB). You can also download a free copy of Dr. Berman's handbook (PDF-file) on how to talk to your kids about sex here (PDF 3.4 MB).
As parents we have a huge responsibility to teach our kids well about the body and sex, and not only because of our significant influence on our children by how we ourselves model positive behavior and through the values we communicate, but because we cannot count on our children's schools teaching them.
New national minimum standards for sex education curriculum are not going to remedy the situation. These non-binding recommendations were recently released to states and school districts in an effort to encourage age-appropriate discussions about sex, bullying and healthy relationships. Though this may seem a positive measure, the recommendations reflect the disappointingly low level of quality sex education we have arrived at today after decades of funding and promoting abstinence-only programs, though abstinence-only programs have proven highly ineffective. The standards really do capture a bare minimum.
Comments sex educator, author, and minister Debra W. Haffner in her review of the new standards:
The following words appear nowhere in the new Standards: pleasure, desire, kissing, masturbation, fantasy, dysfunction, marriage preparation, limit setting. As a minister, I am most distressed that the words love, parenthood (except as in “Planned Parenthood”), and marriage preparation also do not appear anywhere in the document.
"We must remain conscious that these standards will not fulfill young people’s needs for information and education about sexuality issues, nor do they adequately provide a values-based framework for young people’s decision making," concludes Haffner. And "we have to realize that the vast majority of public schools will not offer young people the type of comprehensive sexuality education they need."
Haffner served for twelve years as president of SIECUS — the country's largest clearinghouse of sexuality education — and she has been a human sexuality educator for more than twenty-five years. She is also the author of From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children, which I highly recommend. A long-term advocate for school-based sexuality education, Haffner states with dismay that she has "increasingly begun to feel that the schools will never be able to be the major source of sexuality education for children and young people." She explains as follows:
The fact is that the federal abstinence-only program changed the landscape of sexuality education in the United States, and the fear of controversy means that in most places, teachers are unwilling or indeed unable to teach much beyond what I labeled more than two decades ago as “disaster prevention and organ recitals.” Most schools do not have programs that teach about pleasure, desire, orientation, gender identity, sexual limit setting, masturbation, and abortion. Many teachers have not received adequate training in sexuality education, and the average young person according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention receives fewer than 3 hours in elementary school and six hours in middle school on HIV, pregnancy, and STD prevention.
Haffner concludes with an appeal to parents, religious institutions, health care services, community-based agencies, and online communities to step in where schools fail.
As an educator, I hope school districts across the nation will eventually wake up to the importance of providing all teachers with the appropriate training, time, and guidelines required to ensure comprehensive sex education is taught in the classroom. In the meantime, I second Haffner's plea to parents that we at least face our responsibility to serve our children by teaching them as best as we can. Including on sex and masturbation.
Co-published by the American School Health Association, National Education Association, American Association for Health Education, and the Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education, the new recommendations for sex education curriculum were presented in a document titled National Sexuality Education Standards, Core Content and Skills, K-12, available as PDF-file here.
(This article was originally published at Good Vibrations Magazine).