Ask Dr. Marla: Establishing Boundaries on Self-Touching

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My four-and-a-half-year-old son is moving on from fondling himself to full blown masturbation. I know it is healthy and feels good and I express that to him. I’ve told him that in the privacy of his room this is OK, but how should we deal with all the ‘man handling’ in public?


Firstly I have to congratulate you on your healthy attitude and the advice you have already provided. This often is a topic that parents find hard to address. To add some perspective, it is important to know that onset of masturbation can be as early as 18 months. Your son is in the age group where activity typically peaks – between three and five. The behaviour is entirely normal. Children will masturbate for a few reasons, including curiosity and body exploration, self-soothing and pleasure.

Your matter-of-fact approach is exactly the advice I would endorse. Our role as parents is to set limits in a host of different situations. In this instance you have told him the behaviour is fine but the issue of privacy and boundaries is important. In young children we often advise ignoring the activity and always as a parent it is important not only to remain calm but to speak calmly. I’m glad to hear that you do not threaten or punish your child.

While you can distract a child in public or offer them an activity to do, it is important to set those boundaries. It is also a time to talk about good touching and bad touching – who has the right to touch your body. So, too, the discussion about appropriate and inappropriate places to self-touch should be stated in a matter-of-fact approach.

The messaging should be consistent so that if there is a daycare situation or an at-home caregiver, all address,the topic in the same way. When masturbation is interfering with social activities or you feel it is excessive, talk to your doctor.

Published in June, 2011.

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