Catching your child touching himself or herself when they’re really young can be a difficult one for parents.And it’s something that we often freak out about. What if they’re growing into sex addicts? I get so many questions about how to handle a young daughter (say 3-9) who is masturbating. I’ve tackled this question before, too, so what I want to do today is take a step back and look at the root of our reaction (and the possible ramifications of it).
I think that when we infer sexual motives on our kids when there aren’t any, we can inadvertently cause sexual shame.Guilt is feeling badly about something that you’ve done. Shame is feeling badly about something that you ARE. They’re two very different things. And many of us grew up feeling shame, like there was something somehow wrong with us. We’re in the middle of the launch week for our awesome Whole Story puberty course–an online video course for either girls or boys where young Christian mentors talk about the “facts” of sex and puberty on video, and then discussion questions, lesson plans, activity ideas and more equip parents to continue those conversations.
The Whole Story is an online course to help you talk to your kids about sex, puberty and growing up in a healthy, less-awkward way.
Last year we created The Whole Story for Girls–an online video-based course that helped moms give their daughters “the talk”.
And now we’re launching the boy’s version!
The course officially launches October 29th. But we’re doing a pre-launch sale so you can get the course at a discounted price (the girl’s course is on sale right now, too!) and a chance to help us shape what materials we create next for the course.
Do you see anything in common with all of those stories?
In each case, the child or preteen offended someone’s sensibilities, and were made to feel as if they were somehow bad. But in no case did any of them actually sin. In fact, in the case of the girl who didn’t want to be tempting, or the little girl who just liked to swing her legs, she did absolutely nothing at all. But they still merited disapproval. When we show our children that they are doing something wrong when there is absolutely no ill-intent on their part, it is all too easy to make those kids feel like there is something inherently bad about them. That’s how we cause shame.
So let’s take another step back and ask a bigger question:
Why were the adults getting upset?
A little girl naturally swings her legs when she’s bored (so do little boys, by the way). And a little girl, sitting in church surrounded by her family, should not be a temptation to anyone (and if she is, that’s on the sick pervert, not on the little girl). At every Christmas pageant I’ve ever been to, there’s always some 3-year-old girl who lifts up her dress. It really isn’t a Christmas pageant until at least one child tries to strip. That’s what little kids do!
But if our reaction to our children makes them feel like there is something wrong with their very natural inclinations, then we will be telling them that there is something wrong with THEM.
Why would we do this? Probably because we’ve internalized some of the messages that we were given as kids, about what it means to be proper, and how somehow being improper is the worst thing that you can do. And we think our worth is in being in control and being seen as “good”, rather than understanding that our worth is in Jesus.
I think there’s a similar dynamic in the parent who lambasted the preteen boy for being stinky. An 11-year-old is immature. He doesn’t have the discipline to know to shower everyday. He doesn’t realize he’s stinky. Yet when adults react to him like they are appalled that he is stinky, they’re usually reacting to their own insecurities and fears rather than their son’s. What if he’s rejected? What if he reflects badly on us? You should never let yourself be gross!
Why was the mom worried that her daughter would be a stumbling block to other men (even men in her family)?
There’s nothing wrong with a girl developing a woman’s body as she hits puberty. But in many Christian subcultures (as well as other cultures), we’re taught that if a guy lusts, it’s because we’ve done something wrong. And many women grow up paranoid that other females will steal their husband’s attention, or paranoid that our daughters are just plain not safe because all of these uncontrollable men are around.
Instead of laying the blame for lust where Jesus did–at the feet of men–we lay it at the feet of girls. And that’s wrong.
Here’s the key to avoiding shame: Don’t look at your child’s behaviour. Look at your child’s intent.
Did that boy mean to be stinky? No. He just didn’t realize that he was, and he hadn’t yet developed habits to help him not be stinky.
Did that girl mean to be “enticing” by swinging her legs? Of course not! She was being a toddler.
Did that girl intend to attract men’s eyes? Absolutely not!
But let’s deal with the more difficult one: What about the boy who was masturbating?
Or here’s an analogous one: What about a 12-year-old girl who wants to wear a lacy bra?
Those ones are trickier because they seem to have a sexual element. He’s touching his private parts. She’s wearing lingerie. And you may feel that you have to do what that boy’s parents did–talk to him about how God intended sex to be in marriage, or talk to her about how she shouldn’t try to be alluring.
Here’s where our lesson from yesterday comes into play. Listen to your kids and see where they’re coming from. Your child may do something that, if an older teenager did it, or if you did it, would have a sexual connotation. But that does not mean it’s sexual to your child.
It’s perfectly normal for small children to touch their private parts. It feels good. It can relieve stress. It doesn’t mean they’re thinking about sex.
A girl may want to wear lace because she thinks it’s pretty, not because she’s trying to attract boys.
Don’t infer sexual motives on your kids. Just deal with their behaviour.
If you react to your children in a way that assumes they were being sexual, when they weren’t, they will not understand what all the fuss is about. And they will assume that this thing they did that had to do with their body must be very, very, very bad. But because they didn’t do it with any evil intent, the badness transfers to the body itself. It’s got nowhere else to go. So now the child thinks his (or her) body is bad or dangerous.
What’s another way of handling it? Just be matter of fact, and concentrate on teaching what’s appropriate rather than inferring bad motives.
“Johnny, we don’t touch our penis in public.” Or, if he’s doing it too often, keep him busy! It could be a boredom or self-soothing technique. Here are other posts I’ve written on the subject: