I Caught my Kid Masturbating!

Dear Mamas,

I’m mortified, and I don’t know what to do about it! Yesterday I walked in on my 4-year-old as he was happily playing with Legos. In fact way too happily. As he was building an intricate castle complete with knights on horseback with one hand, he was deliberately rubbing his bare naked privates with the other. The look on his face told me his mind was far away from those lego bricks and in the land of boys will be boys.

What I’m most upset about is my reaction. Before I could stop myself I rushed into the room saying something like, “What are you doing? Don’t do that. Let’s work on your castle – I’ll help you.” I proceeded to pretend nothing had happened, cringing silently the whole time.

So now I want to go back and fix my mistake but I have no clue what to say. He seems to have forgotten the whole thing. Should I just leave well enough alone? Help Mamas!

(embarrassed) Sonya

Hi Sonya,

Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. Most of us have tapes in our heads from our own upbringings telling us that bodily feelings are somehow dirty or wrong, so when we see our innocent babies enjoying the pleasures of the flesh it can be pretty jarring.

The thing is, this isn’t the first time. Your little guy has been enjoying the warm fuzzies created by touch since his tiniest days. When you held him close to feed him, when you walked the floor bouncing him to put him to sleep, when you stroked his little head while reading him a story, even when you spun him around by both hands making him giggle uncontrollably — all these things produced feelings of pleasure in his little body.

This is no different, and it’s just as normal. Now he’s learned that there are things he can do for himself that feel good … really good. So of course he’s going to keep doing them.

Your gut told you that your reaction was a bit off (that was the cringing feeling), and you’re right. How you react in that situation — your voice, the words you use, your facial expressions — is one of your child’s first lessons in sexuality. By responding without  surprise or disapproving words you can teach your kiddo that curiosity about his body is a normal part of life.

And it’s not too late. He may seem like he’s forgotten, but I’d guess he has a clear memory of your discomfort. So you might want to try something like this:

During tuck-in time (that sleepy period just before dreamland is perfect for this stuff) open up a conversation about how you know it feels good when he touches his fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever-your-family-calls-it (I’m a fan of “penis”, the anatomically correct word), and that it’s perfectly healthy and OK. You may want to practice in front of a mirror first to be sure you can keep a matter-of-fact and loving expression and tone.

Tell him how important it is for children and grown-ups to love their bodies and treat them right, and that there are times and places where body touch happens. Just like you take a bath in the bathtub and go to sleep in your bed, it’s OK to touch your penis when you’re in private rather than around other people.

Here’s where you might add that you were surprised when you walked in on him and his Legos, and he did absolutely nothing wrong. But you had to think about it because you felt bad about barging in. And then leave it at that. Finish by reassuring him that everyone can touch their own body freely, but no one else may touch it without permission.

Big kiss, big hug, night-night!

~ The Mamas

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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