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?
Genital Exploration or Masturbation?
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 touch or rub this area with their hands or even objects like couch cushions. 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.
Responding to Genital Exploration in Toddlers
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.
Toddlers are curious and want to explore everything, including their own bodies. They are also little sponges and are ready to learn and absorb information. Take advantage of this interest by teaching your toddler about their body. Use proper names for body parts (such as penis, vagina, buttocks, private parts). Using made-up names can teach the child that there is something wrong with the proper names. Discuss modesty, and privacy in age-appropriate ways. “Please give your sister privacy when she goes to the bathroom” Start talking about who is allowed to see your private parts (parents and doctor, but not friends or others). This also helps give toddlers a sense of control about their own bodies. Over time, as your toddler grows, you can reiterate and add to these conversations.
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. Make talking about your body and answering their questions normal, and not something to hide or be embarrassed by.
My Advice to Parents of Toddlers
My advice to parents is not to try to stop this normal body exploration and part of development. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a list of common and unconcerning sexual behaviors in young children. Behaviors on that list include touching genitals in both private and public places, trying to see adults naked or their siblings, and standing or sitting very close to others. These behaviors, in general, are normal in toddlerhood. Behaviors that are considered red flags and should be further evaluated include any sexual behavior that occurs very frequently or cannot be interrupted by distraction, behaviors simulating adult sexual acts or those associated with force or coercion.
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.
Don’t hesitate to bring up any concerns with your pediatrician, who is well versed in talking about toddler behaviors.
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.
References and Resources
Strachan E, et al. Masturbation. Pediatrics in Review. 2012;33(4):190-191.