[The author of this article, "Chris," has four adopted sons, ages 22, 19, 19, and 9. He's worked in emergency medicine for almost ten years and has a BS in Special Education and Psychology. A single parent, Chris is active in his sons' sports groups and Catholic youth groups, and he enjoys computers, reading, and nature.]
I always wanted my children to be well-rounded and to have healthy self-esteems. It was no problem letting them learn about their bodies as toddlers — exploring their hands, feet, etc. It was also a given that when they were very young, they were to be encouraged to develop their minds and creativity, and that their privacy was to be respected, allowing them to be creative without interfering. After all, when a kid says, "Don't look — I'm making you something special," you don't look, right? But then along comes adolescence and the next phase of development: their sexuality.
This is probably the hardest one to deal with, as it means our children are growing up, and that they're experiencing the last phase before they leave us as adults. It also means looking at our children in a different light — as individuals with feelings and desires similar to adults'. To complicate matters, these feelings and desires may be ones we ourselves are not comfortable with. However, for our children, we must be able to address these issues and then honestly and openly deal with them. If you have cultivated an open relationship with your children, this should be an easy transition. They have always trusted you to provide the information and skills needed to grow, and this aspect of their development should be no exception.
When your children were infants, you probably read books on parenting. When they started going to school, books on helping them to achieve and succeed were probably on your reading list. Perhaps books on parenting styles have been on the list as well. Now it is time to read about sexuality and human development. There are several excellent books available at your local bookstore — and personal preferences and values should be your guide to selecting them. By reading the information, you will be prepared to answer the questions your children will have. And trust me, if you have kept open communication with them, they will have questions.
Sex education should begin at an early age, when the children first start asking questions, which is usually around the age of three or four. If you appear comfortable when answering their questions at this time, then as questions arise later, the children will feel safe and comfortable asking them. We've guided the kids through the other developmental stages, and I feel we owe it to them to be there to assist with this stage as well. There is a tremendous responsibility on our part to provide appropriate information and direction for children at this stage in their lives, as it forms their attitudes toward sexuality and their feelings about sex in general. By having an accepting and open attitude, they will have less guilt associated with sexuality. Setting the stage now for positive attitudes toward sex will allow your children to have those positive feelings as adults.
If, on the other hand, you make sexuality a shameful, hush-hush topic, then your children will learn to associate sexuality with shame and embarrassment. And if your children have questions at this stage and do not feel comfortable asking you, then who will provide the answers for them? The misinformation they get from their friends can ruin their lives with unwanted pregnancies. It can also lead to them contracting diseases that can last a lifetime (and even prove fatal). We need to take the time to explain the facts, answer questions, and aid them in developing a healthy attitude about sexuality.
Instilling in our children a healthy attitude about sex is a great gift to give them. It will allow them to express their love with the person they love without feelings of guilt or shame. The terms you use with them, also, are as important as the information you give them. If you use the words you used when they were younger, your children may feel belittled, or they may feel the information is for babies and not for them. Using the correct terms and explaining the terminology will give you greater credibility, and you will gain more respect from them, than if you try to use the "cute" terms.
The facts you provide should include information about masturbation. You've given them the freedom to explore other areas of their bodies as they've developed — now you need to give them the freedom to explore this area as well. Masturbation allows for the release of the sexual tension they feel, and it allows them to determine what kinds of stimulation they like and what they do not like — the areas they like stimulated and the areas they do not. Eventually, this will also allow them to learn the masturbation pace they like, which will help them learn to delay their orgasm — and learning to delay their pleasure will give them the ability to make sure their partner later in life has a chance to achieve their pleasure, too.
Discussing masturbation with your children can be difficult — and if you haven't prepared for it, it will probably be an uncomfortable discussion. Preplanning the conversation is important; thinking about what you want to say and how you want to say it will make for an easier time. Explain that masturbation is a healthy normal activity; mention that probably all of their friends will masturbate, and that you understand they will masturbate, too. You probably won't need to say a lot about technique, except to say there are many ways to do it. Practice saying what you want to discuss out loud, so you can hear yourself using the words and phrases. This will make you more relaxed when you're discussing it later with your children.
This is also is a good time to discuss privacy. Tell them you understand as they grow up and their bodies change that they may want more privacy. Let them know you'll respect their right to privacy by honoring closed doors. Offering to place a lock on their bedroom door will show you mean what you say. Respecting their privacy also means that if you notice stains on underwear or other clothing, or if there's an increased use of tissues, lotions, or Vaseline, that you won't mention it. Keeping those supplies available and replenished will show, in a quiet way, that you know what they are doing and approve.
When you start this discussion, make sure you're in a place comfortable for both of you. Also, be sure it's a location where you will not be disturbed by distractions, such as TV or the radio. Starting out with small talk and moving into the discussion can also be helpful. In starting the actual discussion, you may want to stress that you know this could be an uncomfortable topic but that you will not make any judgments or react negatively. Additionally, explain that you feel it's important to have this discussion, and explain why.
During the talk, make sure to give your children plenty of time to express themselves. They may want to voice an opinion or ask questions — and if you do not allow them time, it becomes a lecture and not a discussion. Also, flying through the talk gives your children the impression that you do not really mean what you are saying — that you just want to get it over with, or that you are really uncomfortable with the topic. Discussing sexuality in a relaxed way, and really listening to what your child is saying during the discussion, will make it a successful talk.
Close the discussion with an agreement that the child will come to you if he or she has questions. This will make further discussion easier. It's a good idea to provide some reading materials; for males, for example, I recommend The What's Happening to My Body? Book for Boys by Lynda Madaras [Newmarket Press]. Pointing them to online resources (such as JackinWorld) may also prove helpful; depending on the relationship you have with your child, you may want to try looking at the page together. During the closing, reaffirm the agreement to respect privacy. End on a positive note by saying, "Is there anything else you would like to talk about or discuss?" You may be surprised at what other topics your child may want to bring up.
Having an open discussion on masturbation sets the stage for the discussion of sex later. If your children know you are willing to discuss things with them, and that you have non-judgmentally done so before, makes it much easier for them to come to you if they're concerned about something. Open, honest, and effective communication can only enhance your relationship with your children.
In closing, I would like to say that I hope everyone takes the time to have a discussion with his or her children about masturbation. However, educating ourselves first is the key to having a positive dialog. If the child asks something you do not have an answer for, don't be afraid — it's fine to say, "I'm not sure, but I'll find out the answer for you." Providing a relaxed environment with an open attitude will help to make this discussion a success — and allowing your children to explore this last area of their development will help them to be healthy and happy adults.