Greta Christina has a great blog post relating a question she received from a reader. Read the whole post HERE.
Here’s the gist of it. A woman wrote that she is having a problem with her 4 year old daughter masturbating. She doesn’t want to discourage her from doing so, but is worried about how to explain that she shouldn’t do it in certain situations. Here’s an excerpt from Greta’s response:
I’d be inclined to say something along these lines: “It’s fine that you do that. Most people do that, and it’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with it. But that’s something that you should do when you’re alone, in private. That’s a part of your body and a part of your life that people usually keep to themselves, or share privately with particular people. It’s not something we do in front of everybody, and it’s not something kids and adults do together. That’s not because it’s dirty or bad or something to be ashamed of. It’s just because we keep some parts of our lives private — and for most people, that’s one of them.”
This taps into a soapbox issue of mine. I am absolutely sick of the notion that parents ought to protect children by giving them one story now and then letting them learn later on that the world isn’t as pretty as they thought. Hello!? Disillusionment anyone?
Greta has the right idea — tell the truth on a level that a child can understand. Her four year old can’t possibly understand the full implications of masturbating in front of people. Hell, I’m not even sure I can understand them all. But, a four year old understands privacy. She knows that mom and dad sometimes lock their bedroom door, even though she doesn’t know what they’re doing in there. She understands that most people close the bathroom door when they go in. She is beginning to understand that people don’t go out in public naked.
So tell the child the truth. Masturbation is fine, and pretty fun. Nearly everybody does it. There’s nothing bad or dirty about it at all. It’s just a private thing, so you shouldn’t do it in front of other people. That’s all a four year old can understand, and it’s enough to accomplish two purposes: First, it saves the mother from embarrassment when her daughter starts diddling at dinner. (Ten points for alliteration!) Second, it begins the process of teaching her daughter a healthy, sex positive outlook on her genitals and the pleasure she gets from them.
Yeah… I know… it’s uncomfortable to talk to a four year old about genitals. But you know what? I’ve done a lot of uncomfortable things in my life because they were the right things to do.
There’s a broader concept at work here, too. Consistent integrity. By integrity, I mean that what a person says, does, and believes all match up. The best thing we can do for a child is to display consistent integrity. Here’s how this applies to masturbation. Suppose that a parent takes the easy way out and says, “Daughter, do not masturbate because it’s bad.” This will accomplish the immediate goal of avoiding embarrassment. The child will no longer masturbate where she can be caught.
She will, however, do one of two things. She might continue to masturbate in private, feeling guilty for doing something that’s bad, and dreading discovery. She might stop masturbating altogether. Either option is bad. If she masturbates in private, she will begin developing layers and layers of guilt about her own sexuality. By the time she’s a sexually mature adult, there will be little hope of her ever experiencing a guilt-free session of petting the kitty. Her love life will suffer. Her personal life will suffer. She will be less happy.
If she stops masturbating in private, she will grow up with layers and layers of guilt about wanting to masturbate. Eventually, she will give in and start masturbating again (see the above paragraph) or she will never masturbate. Her love life will suffer. (The most effective way for women to learn to control their orgasms during intercourse is through masturbation. This isn’t just about masturbation!) She will be less happy.
Of course, there is a third option. She’ll decide that her parents were full of shit and that masturbation is ok. After a few years of practice, she’ll probably be approximately as healthy as someone who grew up believing it was ok. But seriously… is it worth risking either of the first two options just to avoid telling the truth?
Suppose when this girl turns fifteen, her mother decides to have another talk with her. She says, “Listen, honey. It’s ok for you to masturbate now. You’re growing up and becoming a sexual being. Masturbation isn’t dirty. It isn’t bad. It’s just something for adults.”
First off, the girl has every right to be angry. Her mother lied to her, and now she has lived nine tenths of her life believing a lie. Second, children are not chalkboards. You don’t have the option of just wiping away ten or twelve years of belief and magically creating a sexually confident and healthy young woman. Between the ages of 3 and 12, children will form their deepest and longest lasting views about themselves and the universe. Ask any psychologist — 8 out of 10 psychological problems stem from something that a person experienced or believed as a young child. Once a child has lived through the most important formative years believing masturbation is bad, she is not going to be able to just wipe that from her subconscious.
This doesn’t apply just to masturbation. Lying to children is just not a good idea. Telling a child that daddy is sick when he’s really drunk is a bad idea. It’s embarrassing to say, “Daughter, Daddy has had too much alcohol, and now he’s drunk. He’s getting sick because that’s what happens when you drink too much.” It’s embarrassing for Daddy to have to look his daughter in the eye when he sobers up and say, “Daughter, I feel embarrassed that I got drunk in front of you. I’m sorry.”
Telling a child that a dog ran away instead of telling her that the dog is dead? Bad idea. Death happens, and it’s sad. Children can understand that. The dog was alive, and now it’s dead. It’s ok to be really sad or to cry. Mommy and Daddy loved the dog, too. It’s ok for us all to cry about it. Telling the child that the dog ran away is just setting up a web of lies. Are we going to go look for him? Why aren’t we going to look for him? Have the neighbors seen him? (The neighbors know he’s dead. Don’t make them lie, too.)
When parents lie to young children, it’s not for the sake of the children. It’s for the sake of the parent. It’s easier to lie than to figure out how to communicate uncomfortable truth to a child. The thing is, children remember every single time their parents lie. Learning that your parents are untrustworthy is far worse, I believe, than learning about death or masturbation.