How to Talk About Masturbation With Our Kids—According to an Expert


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talk to kids about masturbation"
talk to kids about masturbation
Source: Canva
Source: Canva

The Birds and the Bees talk in my home has become known as the Chips and Salsa Conversation. When it was time, I sat each of my kids down, pulled out a bowl of Clint’s Texas Salsa, chipotle flavored, and said “OK, let’s get this right. Boys have a penis, and girls have a vagina.” And thus, awkwardness was born in our house. 

I refuse to avoid hard conversations with my kids. Sex, our bodies, and yes, even exploring our bodies. Nothing is off-limits. These are all topics our kids need to know about, and we need to do it without guilt or shame. That doesn’t mean that the conversation is going to be easy. And some topics are harder than others, such as masturbation. 

I reached out to pediatrician Dr. Shelly Flais, author of Nurturing Boys to be Better Men, for a little bit of help. “First and foremost, I love that your family gave ‘the talk’ a fun nickname,” she said. “Anything that helps us laugh together and lighten the mood is a great thing! So much of the human experience is comical, and we should just laugh about it and normalize these experiences. Laughter has a way of greasing the wheels of communication.”  

dr flais headshot

Shelly Vaziri Flais, MD FAAP

Dr. Flais is a practicing pediatrician, mom of four, and an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. In addition to her clinical practice and faculty responsibilities, she has authored several parenting books with the American Academy of Pediatrics and serves as an AAP spokesperson.

When should we start talking about sex with our children?  

“It is a mistake to wait for sex ed. Our kids are surrounded by messages, and it is important that we as parents have a voice in these conversations,” Dr. Flais said. 

When I had the talk with my kids, I was as blunt as possible for this very reason. I knew that I was combating what they may have heard through their friends on the playground or seen on the internet, despite my attempts to control access. 

I wanted to ensure I erased the misconceptions I was told growing up. 

“If you touch yourself, you’re going to hell. It’s a sin,” was the most popular saying in the deep South.

“As a pediatrician caring for newborns through college age, we recommend ‘the sooner the better’ to have these talks. And it’s not just one big The Talk; rather, we prefer many mini conversations. Parents are wise to look for teachable moments. As parents, we can help kids fact-check and put issues into context,” said Dr. Flais. 

It’s these teachable moments—small and seemingly insignificant—that can make conversations easier to have. 

How do we educate our children about exploring their bodies?

“I am asked by patient families all the time about toddlers or preschoolers exploring their anatomy. My advice? Do not shame them. Explain that this is something that needs the privacy of the bedroom or bathroom,” said Dr. Flais.

To raise sex-positive kids, the conversation about our bodies needs to happen early. Name the behaviors in age-appropriate terms, qualify the meaning, and remove the shame. By the time they are preteens, this should help facilitate the tougher conversations you have yet to have. 

Dr. Flais goes on to explain what she means by teachable moments when discussing sex and masturbation with our children. Shared media screening is a great place to start. She states, “Even a nature documentary will discuss mating, or a TV show or movie will make an awkward reference. Parents can use these as a talking point to ask kids what they think and to share their values on the subject.” 

One of the mistakes that we make as parents is avoiding the subject altogether, such as masturbation. Dr. Flais said, “Silence is where misconceptions and shame enter the picture. We want to support our kids and normalize the human experience.” 

how to talk to kids about masturbation mother and daughter
Source: Canva

What do we get wrong when we talk about masturbation? 

If we make a big deal out of something, our kids will take it as an important moment. This can be a mistake, according to Dr. Flais. 

“Drawing excessive attention to a situation can increase anxiety and actually increase the behavior. This goes for nail biting, masturbation, or any repetitive sensory behavior. It’s best to adopt a breezy attitude (even if as a parent, you feel anything but ‘breezy’ on the inside!).”

“Drawing excessive attention to a situation can increase anxiety and actually increase the behavior… It’s best to adopt a breezy attitude (even if as a parent, you feel anything but ‘breezy’ on the inside!)”

Words matter, and how we choose to talk about a subject can have long-ranging effects. And even if we are uncomfortable with a subject, peppering it with charged words can do more damage. 

“When we as parents say, ‘don’t this, don’t that,’ all the kid hears is what they shouldn’t do. If possible, try to change the phrasing to the positive: ‘That is something that happens in the privacy of the bedroom or bathroom.’ Explain what the child can do.” 

This gives our children some agency in their lives and helps them feel in control of their sexuality. As they grow older, this is one lesson that can teach kids about body safety, reinforcing the idea that only they will decide what to do with their bodies and no one else. 

What happens if we catch our kid masturbating?

One day, it may happen, that you accidentally walk into your child’s room to “catch them in the act.” It’s a moment that has been played out in countless movies and TV shows because there is truth to the scene. So, what should you do? 

“Give your child privacy,” Dr. Flais advised. “You may feel inner turmoil, but now is the time to play it cool. If you need to vent, vent privately to your partner or trusted confidante. And certainly not within earshot of others. It is important that children know they can have boundaries. Don’t disrupt that as a parent.” 

In short, say excuse me, walk away, and then later apologize if you have invaded their privacy and take the opportunity to remind them that certain activities need to be confined to private spaces. 

Masturbation is a natural extension of exploring ourselves, and it’s important that our kids understand this. It’s not an easy conversation to have, but the most important ones usually aren’t. Even if you botch the first sex talk with your child, you’ll have chances to try again. So, grab your own version of chips and salsa, look for those teachable mini-moments, and be the mature parent that your kids deserve. 

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