Q: My soon to be 5-year-old son has recently "discovered himself" and we are constantly seeing him with his hands down his pants playing with his penis. Is this normal for this age, and how do we respond to this without making him feel embarrassed?
A: Children as young as 18 months old masturbate, and it is a natural behavior –for both boys and girls - that physicians will tell you generally causes no harm. It is common and frequent in young children, particularly as they become preschool age and have more control of their motor movements and are more conscious about knowing what they like and what feels good. The frequency of this behavior tends to decline as children enter elementary school, and then increases again during puberty. Children tend to masturbate because it feels good or they are exploring their bodies, neither of which is a cause for concern (however, if the child appears to be touching himself because of physical discomfort or is displaying other symptoms of possible medical problems, a parent should consult with the child’s physician; if the behavior is so frequent that it is interfering in the child’s life, the parent may also wish to seek professional help).
When teaching about something as important and complex as sex and love, parents should keep in mind that it’s best done in bits and pieces and on an ongoing basis (remember, we don’t sit a kid down once and say, “Here is everything you need to know about math; now please don’t ever ask me about it again”, which is what parents have traditionally done when teaching about sex). Doing so allows you to convey information in little pieces at a time, which not only helps your child to learn better but also allows both you and she to get used to talking about it (and it sends the message that it is alright to talk about it). Parents should start by talking about the different parts of the body, making sure to use anatomically correct names instead of pseudonyms, in order to show that there is nothing wrong with these parts of the body and that it is alright to talk about them. Having ongoing open communication about sex and the body also allows your child to feel comfortable talking to you about these topics, so he won’t feel the need to get the information from others (who may not give the correct information or the values that you would like conveyed). As a child gets older, you would discuss more and more information, using your child’s level of development and interest as a guide. Make sure as a child gets older you talk not only about the physical aspects of sex, but also the emotional components, as well as issues about your values, diseases and consequences, relationships, and birth control options. Parents may want to get one of the many very good books about talking to kids about sex, such as the book It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris, to guide them through the process.
With respect to masturbation, explain to your child that his body is his, and that it is alright to do things that make our bodies feel good: we go swimming on a hot summer day, we eat when we are hungry, and it is alright to touch yourself if it feels good. However, there is a right time and place for things: we don’t yell and scream in church or synagogue, but it is o.k. to do so on the playground. Similarly, there is a right time and place if he wants to touch himself: it is something that he should do in private, and you can tell him when and where this would be.
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