The first week of seventh grade, our second son came home with a novel written by an unfamiliar author. Ever curious, I sat down to read it after he went to bed. About half way through, the narrator, an adolescent boy, began the chapter with this thought, “If God did not want boys to masturbate, he would not have given us thumbs.” A few paragraphs later, he referenced his dependence on pornography. I shot off a We need to talk! email to his teacher and then burst into tears.
It was distressing but, it also motivated me and my husband to press into conversations about masturbation with our introverted son. I’ve been parenting and pastoring long enough to know that we are not alone in our skittishness about this topic. Regardless of our reluctance, our children need us to consistently and lovingly engage.
Almost anyone over the age of forty probably suffered through an incredibly awkward single conversation about sexuality with their parents. I can almost guarantee the topic of masturbation never came up. If we are of the female persuasion, the sex talk was typically connected to the beginning of our menses. Far too many boys growing up prior to the 1990s received little to no sex education except for a one-day health class, typically taught by the men’s gym teacher, that stressed all of the horrific sexually transmitted diseases they might contract. (Nuanced it was not!)
In reaction to our less-than-satisfying experiences and thanks to the work of child development experts, the current generation of parents is far more savvy. We understand the importance of teaching our children the correct nomenclature for their genitalia. We know that we should be having ongoing, candid conversations rather than a single, overwhelming info session. We even have many excellent books to jump-start these conversations. That said, masturbation seems to be in a category by itself and we often struggle to understand what to say.
Though we might have been dragging our feet initiating this conversation with our son, we knew there was no avoiding this topic. In addition to having three sons, my husband had a decade-long addiction to masturbation and pornography that started in his teens. During our two decades of pastoral work, we’ve heard one-too-many similar stories from both men and women. We’ve had to figure out how to have these conversations.
Two observations worth mentioning: the more ambivalence you have about your sexuality and masturbation, the more awkward these conversations are going to be. The longer you wait to have these conversations with your children, the more resistance they may have. Neither the awkwardness nor the resistance should stop you.
About the time that children begin potty training, generally age two to three, they start to explore their genitals. Boys may marvel at their ability to produce an erection and girls inevitably discover their vagina and clitoris. This is a natural part of child development and our goal should be to normalize their curiosity and avoid shaming them. It’s often sufficient to answer their questions simply and add that God designed certain parts of our bodies to bring us pleasure when we touch them. Additionally, non-sexual touch should be generously provided to meet their needs for affection.
When parents worry about a child masturbating, the first advice I offer is: Don’t emphasize the behavior. Don’t show disapproval or try to inhibit it. If it is frequent, look for underlying reasons. Is the child very tense? Is he over stimulated? Has he other ways of self-comforting?
Habitual masturbation by young children may be symptomatic of stress. It may also indicate that they have been touched inappropriately by someone or that they have been exposed to sexually explicit imagery. This is also an excellent time to help them understand that what’s covered by their bathing suits should never be touched by anyone other than their parents or caregivers. Preventing child abuse is part of why these conversations are so important. (Many experts consider pornography seen by children a from of child abuse.)
As our children enter adolescence, masturbation often transitions from simple exploration and self-soothing to a means of satisfying their burgeoning sexual desires. As hormone production increases, boys begin to have nocturnal emissions, typically around age ten, often the same time girls begin menstruating. A proactive explanation about what’s going on in their body will spare them from freaking out the first time it occurs. (I would also advocate sending them to sleepovers with an extra pair of underpants.) We asked each of our sons to let us know when they had their first wet dream and then used it an opportunity to talk about sexual desire and masturbation.
It’s slightly more nuanced for females. Though I started masturbating as a young teen, I actually did not know what I was doing until college! Because our bodies are more mysterious and are often objectified in culture which can lead to shame, our daughters need to understand their anatomy and what brings them pleasure.
Alongside these mostly biological discussions, we pastored our children by emphasizing the need to develop self-control. Not by communicating “Sexual desire and pleasure are wrong and you should shut them down,” but by stating our belief that even when they were aroused or experienced strong sexual feelings, they had the capacity to not act on those feelings. Self-control is an integral component of growing up and sexual abuse would not exist if adults owned this reality.
Our goal in having these conversations should be two-fold. We obviously want to help our sons and daughters embrace the God-designed goodness of their bodies. At the same time, we want to get them thinking about how their sexuality fits within the context of relationships and faith.
Just as young children need to rely on trusted adults and siblings to get their relational needs met and need to discover healthy strategies to cope with anxiety and loneliness so that they don’t fall into maladaptive patterns, our teens need to understand that if masturbation becomes a habit, it may thwart their deeper needs for relationship and intimacy.
Though having an orgasm is a powerful and highly pleasurable experience, it’s also self-centered and to some degree selfish—which is quite different from what we are aiming for in married sexuality. (I realize not everyone will agree with this perspective.) Marlena Graves sagely wrote in a Christianity Today article, “Sexuality is designed for relationship. Masturbation, in contrast, most often isolates and drives a person away from real relating.”
As an example of this, years ago, I remember reading an Ask Beth column where a 14 year-old boy wrote in seeking advice about whether or not it was okay for him to masturbate several times a day. Beth should have asked him, Are you lonely or anxious? Is there pornography involved? Do you have a solid relationship with your parents and peers? Instead, she unreflectively affirmed and empowered his behavior. I think we can do better.
Doing better might look like acknowledging your own ambivalence or fear and choosing to press through. It might look like learning how to really listen to and draw out your teen. (We’ve found car rides to be the best place because they don’t have to make eye contact.) By establishing ourselves as trustworthy sources about all things related to their bodies and their sexuality, we protect them from misinformation as we love and pastor them. That payoff is totally worth the cost.