Dr. Greene’s Answer:
When a parent catches a boy playing with his ears, questions may arise about ear infections. When a parent catches a boy playing with his stiff penis, subterranean concerns, anxieties, guilts, shames, questions and regrets often rumble and stir within — even if we believe that it’s normal behavior. Why do we have these complex and powerful feelings?
Most children begin to explore their genitals at about the same time they begin to look more like little boys and girls than like babies. Just when we are beginning to adjust to their not being babies anymore, we are confronted with the sight of our little boy fondling his erection or our little girl moving her hips up and down on top of her pillow with a glazed look in her eyes. How jarring!
A glimpse, a foreshadowing, of our little ones as sexually mature adolescents is superimposed on our image of them as innocent babies — and all of this resonates with our complicated feelings about our own sexuality and innocence. No wonder this can elicit such concern!
If we take a step back, though, we can see that it makes sense that kids would want to explore their own bodies. When toilet learning becomes a focus of interest, we might anticipate that kids would also be curious about those parts of the body that have in the past been largely hidden under the diapers. Boys will play with their penises. Girls will finger their vaginas, and even insert objects. Many kids will reach down every chance they get. This exploration produces pleasurable feelings, as we are well aware.
Most, if not all, two year olds will engage in some degree of this behavior. Although many parenting books refer to this as childhood masturbation, I believe the term is misleading and unfortunate. Save the term masturbation for genital stimulation accompanied by sexual fantasy — another challenge to face years down the road. Toddlers just do it because it feels good. Unselfconscious delight!
Babies will often tug on the genitals in much the same way they tug on the ears or toes. Toddlers, though, begin to recognize that the genitals are special. They are far more interesting and more fun than toes. For some children, playing with the genitals becomes a self-comforting behavior not unlike thumbsucking. For a few, this settles into a time-consuming habit that takes them away from other important play and development.
What is the wisest way for parents to approach genital play in their toddlers?
First, let the jarring foretaste of your child’s future sexuality help you to cherish the moments of this brief first adolescence. Many people call this period the terrible twos, and wish for these days to soon end. While these months are difficult, they are also a brief, unrepeatable, precious time.
Next, let the foretaste remind you that one of our important responsibilities as parents is to teach our children about healthy sexuality. Of course, the many parents reading this will have wildly different ideas as to what constitutes healthy sexuality. They may even have very different ideas than they themselves did fifteen years ago. Whatever your values, you will want to communicate them to your children as the years go by. You will want to teach them that healthy sexuality is not dirty, nor is it cheap.
The key to passing on your values effectively is keeping the lines of respect and communication open.
I recently received a letter from a concerned couple who had spoken to their pastor about their son’s habit of playing with himself. They said that their pastor “has not been able to find anyone who has ever even heard of a child this young, exhibiting this kind of behavior.” They wanted me to tell them how to “properly assert the correct behavior.” (The letter was semi-anonymous.)
My advice is not to try to stop this normal part of development.
If the genital play becomes and remains a consuming passion, I would look for and address underlying reasons, rather than trying to stop the behavior. Is the child tense and in extra need of self-comforting? Are people overreacting and thus reinforcing the habit? Is there a chronic, low-grade urinary tract infection or yeast infection? Is the child overstimulated and needing to soothe himself to withdraw? Is she understimulated and bored? Dealing with the cause will bring the behavior back to a level of enthusiasm that doesn’t take away from other interests.
If you feel that the genital play should be reigned in a bit, then I recommend that when you see it happening you pretend to ignore what he is doing. Try to distract him with some new, engaging activity. Be as nonchalant as you can manage to be. (Rushing over out of breath is not subtle!) You want to communicate by your actions that he and his body are okay, but that there is also a whole world out there to discover and enjoy.
Directly trying to get toddlers to stop touching themselves is a battle you cannot win. You can’t just put the objects of their attention up on a high shelf out of reach. If you actively discourage kids from self-exploration, or if you punish them for “masturbating,” then genital play becomes a forbidden fruit.
Two things happen when something becomes a forbidden fruit. The fruit will be tasted when the opportunity arises, and people will hide what it is they have done. They will feel the need to be “semi-anonymous.” This shameful hiding is the one outcome you don’t want to produce.
All too quickly, our little ones will launch out on the turbulent seas of true adolescence. Only if we have maintained open communication and mutual respect can we offer any effective guidance during those critical years.
Last reviewed: May 13, 2008