Photo Credit: AMC
In a recent episode of Mad Men, 10-year-old Sally Draper was caught "playing with herself" at a sleepover. And mom Betty reacted exactly as parents shouldn't when they find their kid masturbating: She called her daughter's behavior “unnatural” and “immoral” and, certain her daughter’s diddling would become the talk of the town, immediately made an appointment to have Sally’s head shrunk.
We’ve certainly come a long way since the straight-laced 60s, when shame was piled on kids for such "depraved" acts. Parents of the past often handled such situations just like Betty did -- with trips to see a doctor or clergyman or trying ridiculous scare tactics like “You’ll go blind,” “You’ll grow hair on your palms,” and the ultimate threat, “You’ll go to hell.” But today, most of us modern folk realize that masturbating is natural and normal.
But man, is it awkward! And as uncomfortable as it can be for the parent, consider the gut-wrenching embarrassment of getting caught from a child’s point of view. At the age of 30-something, I still would never, ever want to have to talk about it with my parents.
So, what are we as parent to do when confronted with such a touchy (no pun intended) situation?
Florida-based behavioral therapist Alison Astair told me to remember that, if you catch a toddler or preschooler touching themselves, it’s not really masturbation. “They’re just stimulating their genitals because it feels good," she says. "There’s really nothing sexual about it.” So your kid having his hand down his pants at this age is as innocent as sucking his thumb. It’s important not to make a big deal out of it. “Your initial reaction may be to make a lesson out of it," says Astair. "But the last thing you want to do is set your child up to think that their body is ‘bad’ or ‘dirty.’” Instead of telling your toddler not to do that, if you’re uncomfortable with it, or you're out in public, the best thing to do is distract and redirect them to another activity.
Got an older child? If you walk in on a school-age kid masturbating, simply make a hasty retreat from the scene (the same way you would if you accidentally walked in on them on the toilet). Remember that the behavior is normal -- at any age -- and only address it if your child prompts you to. Chances are he's more mortified than you are. Astair says a simple, nonjudgmental apology like, “I’m sorry. Next time I’ll knock,” should be sufficient. If you’re set on discussing the incident, explain that masturbation is totally normal and that, while people choose to do it behind closed doors, they shouldn't be ashamed.
Have you ever caught your kid masturbating? Chime in below!