The one parenting mistake that's easy to fix

Young people masturbating are free to explore their bodies and experience pleasure without the risks.

Young people masturbating are free to explore their bodies and experience pleasure without the risks. Photo: Carolyn Lagattuta

I was at a stand-up gig the other night when a woman in the audience approached me and said she'd "done something stupid". For most comedians, this usually means being told a 'hilarious' story about the time they put a whoopee cushion on Nanna's seat at Mass; or when they prank-called everyone in town and asked "Is your fridge running… yes?... then why aren't you chasing it down the street?" BOOM. 

However, when someone comes up to me at a gig and says they've "done something stupid" it usually involves a sexual confession. Why? For one thing I'm very good at sex and word gets around. For another thing, in addition to my normal comedic duties, I have been doing sexual health and ethics comedy shows for a decade – mostly with teenagers, but also with parents. Parents don't generally like to talk to their kids about the birds and bees and what's above the knees, so when I'm around they sometimes get their Dr Phil on. I don't mind, I have some awesome anecdotes.

The latest confession, however, was more unusual – the woman said she and her tweenage son were baking biscuits recently when apropos of nothing he said, "Mum, what's masturbation?" Now, keep in mind that this woman had come to a session called "The Talk" about sexy time and teens – she showed up, she's a good egg. When I asked how she handled it she said, "I pretended I hadn't heard him." Oh dear. Undeterred, he asked again, "Mum, what's masturbation?" At which point she departed.

Yes folks, she actually left the room.

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Now, I get it. She pooped her pants – probably not literally, but I'm guessing she's not the only parent out there who would literally rather endure the humiliation of soiling themselves than talking about masturbating with their 11-year-old. Our generation (that is, almost everyone over 30) were, at best, told to ignore masturbation or, at worst, actively and deliberately shamed about it. We laugh about being told "it will fall off" or "you'll get hairy palms" or "it will send you to hell" (what a relaxing thought as you have a bit of "me time"), but it wasn't funny at the time.

Add to that the "fact" that women apparently don't masturbate at all, and I'm guessing this mum was fighting some pretty serious personal baggage. But here's the good news: you can do it over. By which I mean, when we haven't handled conversations about sex as well as we hoped (like running from the room screaming), we can go back and say, "Sorry mate, I got that wrong. Now what was the question?" In fact, I would argue that this shows your kids that when you make a mistake, you own it. It also shows them that when they're uncomfortable talking about something sexual they can still come to you. What better lesson to learn?

And here's the even better news for this mum: masturbation is awesome. I don't just mean as a practice – although, let's be honest, it is – but specifically as an expression of sexuality for young people. It is the absolute safest thing someone can do to experience sexual pleasure – it's done on your own, at home, there's no pregnancy risk and you can't catch anything. BINGO! Young people masturbating are free to explore their bodies and experience pleasure without the risks. Sure, your household water bill might creep up (some of these kids take some very long showers), and they may occasionally look flushed in the face when you're trying very hard to focus on your Cornflakes, but on balance, young people diddling themselves is a tremendous thing.

What's my point? If your son or daughter asks about masturbation I say ENCOURAGE IT. I'm absolutely not kidding. In fact, if they don't ask about it, you should raise the subject with them… and then ENCOURAGE IT.

If you don't know how to go into this conversation cold, maybe wait for a cultural example – trust me, if you're looking for it, the spectre of male masturbation will be raised soon enough on the telly, in a song or at cousin Joshie's Bar Mitzvah – and use this to say, "Do you know what masturbation is? Yeah. And you know it's fine and natural and healthy and all that? Ok, good." For girls, use the cultural example (which will almost inevitably be just about boys … grrrr) to say, "You know girls masturbate too? … I know! They always pretend it's only boys! HELLO! WHICH GENDER HAS THE OPPORTUNITY FOR MULTIPLE ORGASMS?" Then high-five. Okay, that might be further than you're comfortable with, but you get my drift – make it clear that masturbation is fine by you. Of course, talk to them about how it's to be done alone and in private ("for the love god can you leave it alone for 5 minutes and eat your peas?") but in the main, let them know that masturbation is normal, natural, perfectly healthy and – in fact – a darn good idea.

And then for a giggle, ask them all the slang words they've heard for the practice.