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What Do I Do If My Very Young Child Starts Masturbating?

Advice from a sex educator, a therapist, an early masturbator and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

I’m the parent of a very precocious, amazing 7-year-old girl. A little more than a year ago, she was going to her aunt’s house pretty regularly: One day, when we dropped her off, she grabbed one of her aunt’s little back massagers and put it down south. After a minute, we realized what she was doing and didn’t really know what to do. We later talked to the aunt and said we preferred our daughter not have the massager when she visited — that was the last we heard about it.

It must not have stopped, though, because when her aunt passed away recently, our daughter asked about the massager! We told her she couldn’t use it on her private parts, and she got really frustrated and said, “But that’s the only thing I use it for!”

We’re all about no shame and making sure she knows there isn’t anything wrong — just that it’s a private thing. But honestly, we feel ill-equipped to navigate these uncharted waters — we thought we had a couple of years, at least, before we went into this realm. (We have to watch her in the pool, too, because she’ll find the filter jets.) We’re hopeful that we can open lines of communication early so she can be informed, empowered, smart and safe about the choices she makes as she matures. It’s just hard now because she’s so young and not mentally capable of the adult-level conversations.

Basically: What do I do if my very young child starts masturbating?

The Expert Advice

Madison Young, sex educator, mom and author of The Ultimate Guide to Sex Through Pregnancy and Motherhood: Congratulations on having such an open and honest child who’s able to communicate with you about their intended use of the massager. That’s awesome! It’s natural for humans of all ages to seek pleasure and to explore their bodies. My oldest became very interested in self-touch around the age of two. At that time, we simply explained that it’s completely natural and okay for you to touch your own body, but that it’s a bathroom or bedroom activity and that you need to wash your hands before and after touching your vulva to keep your body healthy.

Your child has already discovered the pleasurable sensation that the massager gives her on her own. Permitting her to keep and use the massager as she likes is giving her agency over her own body in a safe space. The story I hear that’s much more common is massagers secretly gone missing, vibrating toothbrushes, sneaking down to feel the vibrating washer or dryer, or yes, the pool jets.

The fact that your child is able to be honest and open with you is huge, and something you want to nurture so you can keep that line of communication and support open as she gets older. I’d also recommend starting the book Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg. It’s a terrific book that I’m currently reading with my almost-seven-year-old. Keep communicating, educating and creating supportive space for these open conversations!

Shannon Brugh, writer, mom and co-founder of SmartyMommies: I imagine this is an overwhelming and intimidating situation that you weren’t quite ready for it! I’d be caught off-guard, too, to be honest. I have a seven-year-old son and an almost-nine-year-old son, and I can definitely say that my seven-year-old isn’t quite mature enough to understand all the nuances of sexuality. Masturbation and self-pleasure are, in particular, tricky to talk about. As parents, my partner and I try to approach things positively and openly, but also discuss appropriate times and locations for talking about one’s private body parts.

We frequently read It’s So Amazing and Sex Is a Funny Word to try to normalize talking about sex and bodies without any shame or embarrassment, while establishing ground rules, if you will. For example, the bedroom and bathroom are great places to experiment with touching your body in a way that feels good. The dinner table isn’t as great. Public places are a no because it makes people uncomfortable. Regardless, wash your hands before and after!

Because your daughter is using a tool that she may not fully understand, I think it’s fair to tell the truth — that it’s an adult toy and not meant for children. She may get angry, and that’s okay: Sometimes rules and boundaries make children angry, but they’re also there to help them. In this case, asking her to wait to use an adult toy until she fully understands her body and her sexuality is a healthy and fair boundary. She can choose to use such a toy down the road at a more appropriate time.

In the meantime, make it clear she’s not restricted from exploring her body at the right times and places and understanding how her body works. Masturbation isn’t bad! In fact, it’s an important part of positive sexual development and a healthy sex life. You just want to give her the chance to understand when it’s socially acceptable to touch herself and to explore her body on her own before she moves on to adult toys.

Jeanine, early masturbator: As a person who masturbated from an embarrassingly early age (sometimes in public, because I was four and I didn’t know any better!), I remember my mom telling me that it’s sort of like peeing or pooping: Something we only do in private. I remember that I didn’t feel ashamed of it after she explained it like that. I felt like I was allowed to explore my body if I wanted to.

Naada Bracey, sex therapist: Children find pleasure in their bodies in a multitude of ways. You sound like amazingly attuned parents who want the best for her, so just as you wouldn’t ban food she found pleasure in eating, it’s best not to ban her from this simple (and free!) magical relationship with her body. Ultimately, it’s about the vital formation of positive and healthy childhood sexuality.

The only concern I have is that those massagers can certainly pack an orgasmic wallop! I’ve worked with many adults who become so accustomed to using toys for arousal that nothing else works, including partnered sex. The ideal scenario is that pleasure comes from a variety of stimuli: Hand, rubbing on a teddy bear, water jets, and later, a partner of her choice. From what you say, she’s already discovered this. You could allow her access to the massager once a week, for example, and say on the other days [that she should] find some of those other ways to feel good.

I know it can be worrisome for parents if their child discovers this world early. Let them have it! You can teach her acceptance and ownership of her body: “My body, my choice!” And you can support her development without intruding on her sexuality. Incidentally, I’m the parent of a 5-year-old who has no qualms about masturbating. I had to just gently say, “That feels good, hey? Best to do that on your own in the bed, not when the rest of us are in here!” It’s gentle guidance, without shaming.