When Children Touch Themselves, Teach Them Privacy


In ultrasounds of pregnant women’s wombs, fetuses can be seen touching their genitals. When babies develop manual dexterity and are free of diapers, they explore every part of their body--including the genitals.

At first, such touching is random, then it becomes more purposeful as children learn that it feels good. Self-pleasure or masturbation is the developmentally normal, though generally unheralded, outcome.

“We are all excited when baby puts his toes in his mouth, but none of us call our mother to say, ‘Guess what, Mom? Matthew touched his penis today!”’ said Debra Haffner, a sexuality educator and author of “From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy Children” (Newmarket Press, 2000). “Children have genitals, and it feels good to touch them. A lot of mothers of preschoolers tell me their sons are always touching their penises in an absent-minded stroking way. Children often aren’t even aware of it, in the same way they twirl hair or thumb-suck.”

Parents should not draw excessive attention to the behavior, but they do need to teach children, without conveying disapproval, that this kind of touching is to be done in private, according to sexuality educators and child development experts. This may be difficult for parents who grew up feeling shame and guilt about their sexuality--what the late child psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg called “ghosts from the nursery” in her famous 1959 book, “The Magic Years.”


“First, parents should acknowledge to the child that the behavior is a normal part of the child’s healthy growth and sexual development,” said Deborah Roffman, a sexuality educator and author of “Sex & Sensibility: The Thinking Parent’s Guide to Talking Sense About Sex” (Perseus, 2001). “Then you introduce the concept of privacy by saying, ‘I see you really like doing that, but people don’t touch their genitals in front of other people because those are parts we keep private. Let’s talk about some private places where it would be perfectly OK to touch your genitals.”’

Because children younger than 3 may not grasp the concept of privacy, more creative approaches may be called for.

“One client told me her 21/2-year-old masturbates under the dining room table and breathes heavily,” said Alice S. Honig, professor emeritus of child development at Syracuse University. She advised the woman to tell her daughter that she needed to do that “in a private place” such as her bedroom. “The 2-year-old responded, ‘But I want to be with my fambily ,”’ said Honig. “So I told the mother to put a large blanket over her so she could get the idea of privacy under the dining room table.”

Older children usually get the concept of privacy, but the message may require repeating in the same way parents must remind children to look both ways when crossing the street.


“I told my daughter it was something she could do in private, not when other people are around,” said one 29-year-old Beverly Hills mother of a 4-year-old. “But she does try to do it when people are around. She is not shy about it. She says, ‘Oh, I am making happy,’ Sometimes I have to kind of physically pull her away and take her to her room.”

Other children grasp the concept more quickly. One Santa Monica mother explained to her 5-year-old daughter a year ago that masturbating was an activity to be confined to her bedroom.

“My daughter doesn’t do it in public because she understands that this is ‘her privacy,’ and she will even say to her nanny, ‘Excuse me. I have to do my privacy thing now,”’ said the mother. “She is very polite about it.”

This mother grew concerned, however, when her daughter disclosed that she thought about witches and scary things while engaged in the behavior.


“My concern was that she was going to entrench herself in negativity and hurt herself and that she wouldn’t be able to break that pattern later in life,” said the mother.

She needn’t worry, say sex and behavior experts. The sexuality of a child is completely different from that of adults, and early sexual behavior is not a good indicator of what the future holds. Parents should resist interpreting a child’s sexual behavior through an adult lens, said Roffman.

“If a child is feeling frightened or alone or scared, [masturbation or genital touching] is a soothing behavior.” said Roffman. “If children are upset, they touch themselves in a way that makes them feel good or relaxed like thumb-sucking. It is a normal way children deal with those feelings.”

The most common times children masturbate is when they are bored, stressed and tired and right before sleep, said Dr. Joshua Sparrow, a child psychiatrist and supervisor of in-patient psychiatry at Children’s Hospital in Boston. The only cause for concern is when masturbation becomes compulsive, interferes with normal life or keeps a child from engaging in activities, said Sparrow, co-author with Dr. T. Berry Brazelton of “Touchpoints Three to Six: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development” (Perseus, 2001).


“It sometimes goes along with sexual trauma,” said Sparrow. “If parents wonder at all, they should see a professional.”

If a child masturbates to the point of soreness or so much that he or she gets a urinary tract infection, then the child may be using the behavior to reduce anxiety, said Aline Zoldbrod, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist with a practice in Lexington, Mass. Children should also be taught not to insert anything into their bodies, said Zoldbrod, author of “Sex Smart” (New Harbinger Publications, 1998).

“The parent might want to see if there is something the child is upset about and try to teach the child different self-soothing behaviors,” said Zoldbrod, who added that children can be stressed over a number of things, including new babies, high-conflict marriages, divorcing parents and the start of school. “The family should provide more soothing and support so the child tries other things.”

Not surprisingly, parents’ biggest fear is that children will hurt themselves.


“I often get asked by mothers, ‘He is pulling his penis so hard--can he pull it off?”’ said Haffner. “I say, ‘If you think about it, we are pretty attached to our genitals. Children will stop if it hurts.”’


Birds & Bees, a column about sexuality and relationships, runs on Monday. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached at