How should we respond when our daughter plays with herself?
March 3, 2013 3:03 PM   Subscribe

She's only a toddler, is this a problem and, if so, how do we handle it?

Our daughter is 19.5 months old. She's remarkably intelligent (knows most letters, can navigate and iPad with ease, and can count to 7... Don't know why she stops there.). A few months ago, we noted that when she was in the tub or when we were changing her diaper, she'd reach down and touch herself. We told her that it's a "vagina", so soon afterwords, whenever the opportunity arose, she would point or touch it and say "'gyna!"

Lately, it's not just a quick gesture. A few times in the tub she seemed to be playing a bit. A couple nights ago I heard an odd noise on the monitor and I went in to find her hands in her diaper and a dazed look on her face. I darted out of the room, and told my wife, who didn't really seem to care. We have a disagreement on how to approach this. She said that occasionally she's witnessed it, and just ignored it, and thinks that we should only make a stink if she does it in front of people.

I just don't think it's right, but I'm scared that if I make a big deal or scold her, it could have negative effects down the line. I was raised Catholic, so I know what repression can do, but I can't help thinking that... I don't know. She's a baby girl. Its not something I think baby girls do.

She doesn't do it a lot, near as we can tell, but it seems messed up that she's doing it at all at this age. Am I wrong?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (51 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Its not something I think baby girls do.

My experience is that you are incorrect, but this is a simple question to ask your pediatrician about.
posted by jessamyn at 3:04 PM on March 3, 2013 [87 favorites]

Not only is this extremely common, but if you punish her for doing this you are setting her up for issues with sexual shame and repression.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:08 PM on March 3, 2013 [45 favorites]

Yes, you're wrong. There is nothing messed up about it. Also, that's not her vagina, that's her vulva.
posted by milk white peacock at 3:09 PM on March 3, 2013 [76 favorites]

"When parents first see this kind of exploration, they wonder 'is this normal?'" says Meg Zweiback, a nurse practitioner and family consultant in Oakland, California. "The answer is yes, you don't need to be concerned."
posted by laconic skeuomorph at 3:10 PM on March 3, 2013 [12 favorites]

It's normal. Just ignore it. She's probably a little young to grasp the concept now, but at some point you can teach her it's ok to do it, but it's for private alone time in her room.
posted by chiababe at 3:10 PM on March 3, 2013 [9 favorites]

Almost definitely extremely normal, but if it bothers you, just ask your child's pediatrician on your next visit.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 3:11 PM on March 3, 2013

In my experience, your wife's attitude is a very healthy one: it's natural for kids to explore everything in reach, it's not a health or safety issue, and some kinds of exploration can be rude in social settings. And yes, the visible part is her vulva (your call on how correct you want your daughter's references to anatomy to be).
posted by thatdawnperson at 3:12 PM on March 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

I agree with your wife - not a big deal unless she does it in public, but even then it's something that can be corrected. With our sons, I just tell them to do it in private, and that other people get uncomfortable I'd they do it in front of them. Seems to work.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:13 PM on March 3, 2013

Totally, 100% normal for her to do this. Also normal for you to feel awkward and unsure of how to respond, so good on you for posting a question. She's a little young yet to understand the private/public and the "wash your hands after" messages that you will need to share with her, so for now, just focus on not overreacting and scarring her for life with negative messages about her body.
posted by Betty's Table at 3:17 PM on March 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

Its not something I think baby girls do ??

Uh, yeah, it is. Just as much as what baby boys do. The standard advice is to let her know it's ok for her to do when she's alone, but not something she should do in front of others.

Also, I agree with others here that you've taught her the wrong word for her genitals. But, whatever.
posted by INTPLibrarian at 3:18 PM on March 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Agreeing with others that it is normal. But when you teach her not to do it in public, be very clear about what you mean. A friend taught her four-year-old not to play with himself when other people are around, so at a dinner party shortly afterwards he suddenly said loudly, "Can everyone please go home now? I want to play with my penis."
posted by lollusc at 3:20 PM on March 3, 2013 [142 favorites]

So, so normal.
posted by gaspode at 3:22 PM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

A couple nights ago I heard an odd noise on the monitor and I went in to find her hands in her diaper and a dazed look on her face. I darted out of the room, and told my wife, who didn't really seem to care. We have a disagreement on how to approach this. She said that occasionally she's witnessed it, and just ignored it, and thinks that we should only make a stink if she does it in front of people.

A couple of things. First of all, there was no need to dart out of the room, since your daughter doesn't know that she's supposed to be ashamed of her sexuality yet. So I think this reveals something about your own attitudes that you might want to think on, especially because she will at some point begin to internalize the attitudes that you're implicitly promulgating. I'm sure you're a good parent, and I'm not trying to make you feel bad, but just remember that this is both normal and non-harmful.

Second, I think your wife is totally correct. I mean, it's your choice as parents if you want to instill shame in her, but there's no really compelling reason to do so. As long as she learns (once she's old enough to understand) that sexuality is private, this shouldn't be a problem for her.
posted by clockzero at 3:28 PM on March 3, 2013 [8 favorites]

I just don't think it's right

Your daughter doesn't have this concept yet. It feels awesome, so she does it.

we should only make a stink if she does it in front of people

Your wife is right to approach this in terms of "This is OK to do, just not in front of other people," because it's actually as functional to your daughter right now as having a poo, which she's also learning to control.
posted by mibo at 3:32 PM on March 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Normal. I have plenty of memories of self exploration as a small child. Eventually learned to do it behind closed doors, thankfully. I'm more concerned about your rather extreme reaction to it.

(Also, it's not her vagina, it's her vulva. And yes, that is an important distinction.)
posted by Dynex at 3:32 PM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

So very, very, very normal.
posted by KathrynT at 3:33 PM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Totally normal! Please don't discourage her! It's her body, she is curious about all of its parts. It's no different than when she was fascinated by her toes at 6 months.

When my son was little and would play with himself during, say, our bedtime routine, I would say "It's fine that you do that but those are your private parts so wait until we're done with the story." It was a double lesson: it's private so be discreet, but also it's private so it's yours, nobody else's. That's an important lesson for a little girl -- her body, so she should know it and be comfortable in it. And teaching her about privacy and what parts of her body are hers alone to touch will be empowering for her.
posted by headnsouth at 3:34 PM on March 3, 2013 [30 favorites]

I did it a lot as a child and my parents just told me that it was something private that you do when you are alone.
posted by amapolaroja at 3:39 PM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

On similar occasion we just told our daughter to wash her hands before (she knows not to put things in there as she once discovered that soap can hurt). She didn't develop any particular habits.
posted by hat_eater at 3:40 PM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Our daughter was an early discoverer (yes, thanks, we're very proud).

We were careful to take it in stride, stay neutral, and be as matter of fact about it as we were about a hundred other things we clued her in about. Eventually she came to understand the concept of 'privacy'.

Our pediatrician's only comment was 'Smart girl!' (Love that guy.)

Incidentally we blamed the vibrations of the car seat buckle for the early enthusiasm (and it was enthusiasm, not just casual exploration.)

Thanks Graco!

Anyway, don't start being freaked out about your daughter's sexuality. Her sexuality exists now, and it will always exist. You'll want to make your peace with that, as it's as much a part of being a person as anything else. Saying 'it's not right', even in your head -- it's the exact opposite of that.

She's normal.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:41 PM on March 3, 2013 [32 favorites]

My daughter was a grinder and a bouncer. On anything. No big deal. They eventually grow out of doing it in public. I have no idea if she does it in private and she is 19 now, so I don't really want to know.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:41 PM on March 3, 2013 [9 favorites]

Uh yeah this is totally normal. I did the same thing at the same age and I think my parents handled it well. My sister also did the same thing at the same age. There's nothing wrong, shameful or abnormal about it. It's completely natural. Would you have the same reaction if it was a boy doing this? If not, why not? Women are just as sexual as men although we're socialized at an early age not to be. Please don't be one of those people.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:42 PM on March 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Listen to your wife. She's absolutely right. Want more reassurance? Ask your pediatrician, who will tell you the same thing.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:50 PM on March 3, 2013

You are fundamentally, 100%, absolutely in the wrong here. This is normal, healthy, and something you need to get over ASAP. If you can't or are unwilling, you may need therapy to deal with your own issues regarding sexual repression. Don't be that parent. Your daughter deserves better.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:51 PM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's not a problem. It's totally normal. A lot of kids will rock on a rocking horse or hold it when they have to pee to get that feeling—so actually, it's awesome that she's figured out that she can make herself feel good with just her hands.
posted by limeonaire at 3:55 PM on March 3, 2013

This is something that both boy and girl children do, and developmentally speaking, it's perfectly normal. It sounds like you're pretty concerned that she's doing it at her age, but while she may be at the young end of the curve (I have more experience with preschoolers, so I'm not totally sure), she's by no means "abnormal". Is there something in particular about this that worries you?
posted by epj at 3:56 PM on March 3, 2013

Anyway, don't start being freaked out about your daughter's sexuality. Her sexuality exists now, and it will always exist. You'll want to make your peace with that, as it's as much a part of being a person as anything else. Saying 'it's not right', even in your head -- it's the exact opposite of that.

Cannot favorite this enough.
posted by Specklet at 4:00 PM on March 3, 2013 [15 favorites]

When my oldest did that as a toddler, I told him it was rude to do so sitting on the couch next to mom while watching cartoons. It is your peepee and you can do what you want, but I don't want to see it. Please do that in your bedroom or bathroom, with the door closed. He dutifully obeyed. (Most mortifying parenting moment of my life was when he announced to me and a room full of guests that he was going to his room to play with his PEEPEEEEEEEE. He came back a few minutes later and loudly announced he was done playing with his PEEPEEEE.)

Kids touch themselves. Just teach her about privacy.
posted by Michele in California at 4:07 PM on March 3, 2013 [12 favorites]

OK, so now that the chorus has spoken...

It's probably worthwhile for you to try and sort out WHY you had this reaction. You say "I just don't think it's right" and "it seems messed up that she's doing it." Can you sit with yourself and try to think about why you are worried? Why is it 'not right' and 'messed up'? What does that mean? What effects do you fear this may have on her? I think you will find that your reaction isn't really grounded in anything concrete.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:13 PM on March 3, 2013 [20 favorites]

Nthing times a million, normal normal normal.

Please don't run out of the room next time or give her any reason to be confused or shocked.

Anecdote: When I was a tiny child - I don't remember how young, but I talked early, and I was young enough to be in the bathroom with my mom when she was going to the toilet - I asked her a question about her anatomy that I, as a bright little girl, had casually observed and thought nothing of. Now, she did answer me eventually, but to this day and I'm 30 years old, I remember the long, awkward pause, how she rapidly pulled up her pants and turned away from me before answering, more than I remember the actual answer.

There were a lot more incidents of this type as I got older and I didn't give most of them a second thought until I was in my mid-20s trying to figure out why my emotions about sexuality were so screwy, despite my rational beliefs.

Now my daughter is discovering herself as well (she's 2) and while I set limits when necessary ("don't put crayons there, hon, let's put your diaper back on now" - she's potty training) I make a conscious point to not make A Deal out of it. Your wife is right on this one.
posted by celtalitha at 4:15 PM on March 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

Why is it 'not right' and 'messed up'? What does that mean? What effects do you fear this may have on her? I think you will find that your reaction isn't really grounded in anything concrete.

Maybe you're thinking that it's a sign of early sexualization, caused by some inappropriate exposure or contact? If so, I hope the chorus of "NORMAL NORMAL NORMAL" will reassure you.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:00 PM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's normal for kids to do this. It is not sexual for them, it's just pleasureable. So you're not intruding on her personal space and don't need to leave the room, any more than if she was reading a book.

Kids at this age are exploring the environment with all their senses, and they are the most present thing in their own environment.
posted by zippy at 5:17 PM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

In-utero masturbation exists. See paper by I. Meizner, published in 1987 in the Journal of Ultrasound in Medicine. There is nothing abnormal going on, relax.
posted by travelwithcats at 5:30 PM on March 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

My very first intact memory is one of touching myself and my mother pulling my hand away and screaming "bad!" Needless to say I have been working through that one my entire life to date. I love the modern approach to sexuality/sexual identity that anything goes until it doesn't. Let it be.
posted by Xurando at 5:31 PM on March 3, 2013 [8 favorites]

Its not something I think baby girls do.

Educate yourself.
posted by flabdablet at 5:36 PM on March 3, 2013

Soooo very, very normal. Not only normal, but deeply human.

If you do indeed know what repression can do, then I'm sure it's not something you will want to pass on to your daughter. No person should ever be ashamed of her body and of feeling good.

Kids notice everything, and your daughter is going to notice how your tone of voice and demeanour change whenever this comes up. It's going to make her feel uncomfortable about this very natural aspect of herself before she can even understand why. The damage that does is a lot harder to undo at age 21 than it is to avoid doing in the first place.

The best thing you could possibly do for your daughter is to explore the effects of your own upbringing on your ideas about and reactions to sexuality in a safe, one-on-one conversation with someone you trust -- whether that's your wife or a good friend or a therapist.
posted by rhombus at 5:36 PM on March 3, 2013

Yeah normal. Most baby-books tell you to expect it, because it's gonna happen. Honestly the only thing that rings as "Odd" to me is that this didn't happen sooner than 19 months.
posted by French Fry at 5:36 PM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is a difference between sexual and sensual. I disagree with above that this is a sexual thing, she doesn't know about sex but she does know what feels good. It's a sensual thing and completely, completely normal. As she gets older, she will connect the two and your actions now will affect that.... But don't be freaked out, teach her about privacy and to enjoy her body.
posted by pearlybob at 5:53 PM on March 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

I just want to acknowledge, since it might make the op feel better, that our early experiences with this freaked us out a great deal. We expected maybe some play, but not, as i said earlier, the enthusiasm.

I was so freaked out I almost did an AskMe about it. So i was pretty cavalier above but it's a process we evolved through. Also we say 'woo' not vulva. We'll probably switch soon but for now it is just a word that always has an exclamation point. Woo! It's probably a parenting fail but she sure does delight in word.

The important part to us is that she feels full ownership of her body, and to delight in her body. It's a hard thing to teach girls and we work on it constantly.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:12 PM on March 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

The issue seems like you haven't really accepted facts around women and their sexuality. Women are very sexual creatures just like men. Let her be. She is normal.
posted by pakora1 at 6:30 PM on March 3, 2013

The consensus is in, and I'm right there with everyone - normal, and this from person whose Catholic mother made me sleep with my hands on top of the covers.

But I'd like to speak to how you first speak of her as a toddler, then refer to her as a baby girl. mrgood and I love our daughter dearly, and of course we want to keep her as young and sweet as possible for as long as possible. But each stage in growth and development reminds us not only of how fleeting childhood is - but of how she is designed to and meant to and wants to grow up. That means letting her do everything she can and encouraging her toward more and even when I'm freaking out myself, getting some outside advice - just like you're doing here.

Perhaps subscribing to Baby Center's month-by-month updates
would help -- because look! At the 20th month you'd see she's right on track:
Exploring genitals
Toddlers are naturally curious about everything -- including their genitals. Just as they played with fingers and toes when they were younger, they'll begin to play with their genitals now. It's nothing to worry about -- unless it's happening non-stop. When your child touches himself in public, don't make a huge fuss about it. Just explain that some things are done only at home in private.
And while not every kid follows this progression exactly, knowing more of what to look forward to and what is, as everyone's saying, normal, can help you with your first reaction.
posted by peagood at 6:34 PM on March 3, 2013 [7 favorites]

At this age, she is discovering new things about herself, including her body parts and the feelings associated with them. So, it's not really sexual per se.

But, if you chastise her or make this into a negative or embarrassing thing, it can have tremendous repercussions for her sexuality later in life.

Culturally, women get told how they 'should' behave often, both in terms of their bodies and their sexuality. She will spend pretty much her whole life having her body behaviours scrutinised and judged by everyone around her endlessly - what she is doing is normal (although ensuring she does this only in private is obviously a must) - please ensure that there are at least two people in her life who are not a part of that throng.
posted by heyjude at 6:48 PM on March 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

I mean, think how fascinating it is that she probably has very little experience so far with that part of her body. We had our 18-mo-old running around with no pants for most of last summer (trying to get a jump on potty training) and the first time I saw her kind of notice this new area of her body, I thought, "wow -- that's been covered up with clothes and diapers for the most part of her whole life so far! How weird!" Just remember -- it's her body. She had a right to know it.

As for what to say, I think you gotta take it as I happens -- for public, it's okay to say, that's a private thing. But, for the most part, I'd leave her be and put it out of your mind.
posted by amanda at 7:01 PM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

My now 20 year old daughter (sorry sweetheart) did this. She seems to have turned out okay. Given that she was into mud pies, and other happily dirty play, we had a rule about washing hands before as well as after touching the nether regions.

Secondly, if you have throw rugs and your tyke is as smart as mine was, expect some discreet play during winter. Okay, she might have been twiddling her thumbs, who knows.

Thirdly, vagina is commonly used as a synonym for vulva. It's not the worst choice you could make - I was the juror on a trial for child sex abuse and the little girl there referred to her puddin' bag. Also, there's nothing quite so fun as seeing your daughter ask your prim and proper mother at the checkout "I got a 'gina, Granma! You got a 'gina, too?"

Fourthly, because I'm very numeric today, it's only our socialisation that makes touching parts of our body wrong or sinful. Certainly this is an act that deserves privacy, but there is nothing wrong with it - it's completely and absolutely normal.
posted by b33j at 7:59 PM on March 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yup, normal. Welcome to fatherhood.

I'm always astounded how blasé dads are about their sons playing with themselves, yet seem to be uncomfortable with their daughters. Gawd bless our culture and its strange ideas that females should not be sensual or sexual in that fashion.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:35 PM on March 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

I knew a guy some years ago who told me his toddler-aged daughter had some sort of vibrating ball toy and she would sit on it and enjoy the buzzing. He was a psychologist and thought this was the cutest thing ever.

As for me, I grew up Catholic, too, and I have vivid memories of reading "Our Bodies, Ourselves" as a teenager and wanting to look at my genitals in a hand mirror but being TERRIFIED of doing so. I don't know what I thought would happen, but I knew it was BAD to look and especially BAD to touch. It took me many, many years to overcome that fear and learn to have orgasms--I literally had to work through every single female sexual dysfunction in the textbooks before I could. Please think about what growing up Catholic can do to the way you think about sex and female sexuality. And let her enjoy her sexuality.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 11:29 PM on March 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Whatever you do, don't--and I seriously mean this--tell your daughter about how funny it was that she masturbated in public as a baby when she's a teenager and going through that awkward don't-want-to-talk-to-parents stage.
posted by anaelith at 4:01 AM on March 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Do emphasize the "not in public" part.

I teach kindergarten and girls do this a LOT. In CLASS. We have adopted a tactic where we don't acknowledge it, don't draw attention to it, but "accidentally" bump the kid's chair, or call on them for the next question, etc.
posted by nile_red at 5:04 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

My daughter did this but less now at 4 yo. She LOVES being tickled all over, and yep, that's a spot she can tickle herself just fine.

About calling it a vagina vs vulva...her pediatrician called it her vagina when she had an exam for burning pee issue. He asked her if her vagina hurt, like that is the general term for that area. (turns out she's using too much soap and bathing too long). So since the Dr calls that area her vagina, I call it that too. When she is older I will clarify that but for now vagina works.
posted by waving at 7:05 AM on March 4, 2013

Well, it's obviously been said, but you are absolutely wrong wrong wrong. I played with my genitals as a baby and masturbated at a very early age. The only thing I remember anyone saying about it was my mom saying it was something I should do "in private," which I took to heart. (I also remember asking her what it was called, and she spelled it out with a bunch of letters, which I assume meant she didn't want me to repeat it-- but I spent years trying to remember which letters she used.)

Right now, at age 23, I am a perfectly sexually happy and healthy young woman, who discovered sexuality on her own and had her first sexual experiences in a state of safe, proactive excitement (i.e. I wasn't "damaged" or coerced into sex early on due to being an oversexed baby). I feel like I've always known how to reach orgasm and never had to go through a difficult, confusing period of learning what my genitals were like and trying to reach an elusive "climax," I've always been comfortable with sexual partners, and I never had to consciously learn to pleasure myself as an adult. It's been pretty awesome. In the past boyfriends have asked when I started masturbating and quite a few of them have been shocked and called me a "demon baby" or something like that, which while kind of funny is also very revealing about the attitudes we have about female vs. male masturbation. DON'T BE THAT GUY. This will most likely benefit your daughter later on-- if she's never ashamed about learning about her body, she'll probably discover sexual pleasure safely, herself, early on, and won't need anyone else (male or female) to gatekeep it for her. Hopefully she'll feel ownership over her sexuality and not let other people control her with it.

Also, as others have mentioned, your question gives a strong impression of deep sexist attitudes about sexuality which honestly feel a little repugnant to read about in conjunction with a tiny baby girl. I know you're not trying to be a sexist or a jerk, but just so you know, the things you've said ("messed up," "she's a baby girl") are attitudes that girls internalize early and which make them feel viscerally sick about their own bodies and sexuality. Real shitty. Not cool.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:34 AM on March 5, 2013 [12 favorites]

Our daughter plays with herself so much it's kind of ridiculous. She also hates wearing pants which compounds the problem. As others have pointed out, I don't think it's abnormal. That's not to say it's not awkward.
posted by chunking express at 12:13 PM on March 5, 2013

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