Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Dad, What's Masturbation?" - Kid's Questions

On Valentine's Day this year my son called me from the passenger seat of his best friend's grandmother's Lexus SUV.

"What's masturbation Dad?"

Ever run into anything like that?

I'm writing about this in response to an essay from Paul Graham that surfaced recently called "Lies We Tell Kids."

[For those of you who don't know Paul, he's sort of a dark DaVinci with a track record for creating wealth from concepts through teams of people... After massive success creating what became Yahoo Store, he began Y-Combinator, a tech VC incubator project.]

When my son called me with this question I was lucky.

I had an answer. I'd been thinking about it for two years. Just allowing the proper answer to surface.

This is near and dear for me. I'm in the process of introducing Online Courses for parents to learn methods of raising children without lying.

I answered his question without lying.

Two years ago, when he was six, my son Romeo and I went to a 20/20 Video store which specializes in new, used, and adult DVDs. Their selection is broad and the set-up is family friendly. All the commercial releases are set up in racks in the front of the store. The back third of the store is walled off w/ a curtain for the adult titles.

We were scanning titles one day and I looked around at one point to notice my son had disappeared. I called his name and began looking for him. A moment or two later he popped out of the adult section, red-faced and embarrassed. This is a huge moment for impacting the child positively or negatively.

"Romeo, come here," I said to him.

He wouldn't come.

I knelt down to be on his eye level and it was clear he knew this moment was important to me.

"Come here," I said, opening my arms to him.

He wouldn't move.

I moved toward him on my knees and he backed slowly away.

"You're not in trouble," I told him.

"I don't want to come to you," he told me clearly.

"It's your choice," I replied. "You are big enough to decide what to do with your body."

He softened.

"And... this important for us to talk about. I'll be ready in the next day or two, and I encourage you to let me know when you are ready too."

He softened some more.

"Okay, Dad."

Two days went by.

We were sitting on the couch and between commercials I paused the DVR and said, "I'm waiting for you to let me know when you are ready to talk about what happened at the store the other day."

He flushed, but seemed open.

"Tell me if now is the time," I stated.

He nodded.

"So, tell me what that was like for you."

He froze.

"Tell me if you liked what you saw and are interested in learning more, or if it was not interesting to you."

Quietly, he said, "I'd like to know more about that."

"Tell me what you know about it so far," I encouraged.

"It has something to do with making babies and being married," he mentioned.

Not bad. At that age to connect sex and porn to marriage and babies with little prior context. I was proud of him.

"Well," I said, "we can always talk more about this. There is nothing wrong with bringing this kind of thing to me. My job as your dad is to help you prepare for success in your life. Sex and women and those kinds of movies are a small part of your whole life, and, they are important. So remember to bring all of those kinds of questions to me."

He nodded and smiled.

"Thanks for making that easy, Dad," he said.

"Sure. And just so you know, the way our society is set up, that room in the DVD store is for people who are 18 years old and up."

He looked at me carefully. "So I should probably only go there with you?"

Smiling I replied, "We'll probably wait a little bit until we do that, but we can. One day. And just so you know, wanting to know more about sex and women and marriage and those kinds of movies is perfectly healthy."

So, I wasn't surprised two years later when he called with the question about masturbation.

Just a few weeks earlier we'd been talking about puberty and what to expect. A wonderful friend of mine had been talking about all the hormones and mood swings his 10-year old daughter was going through. It reminded me how much my son prefers to be prepared for changes of any size.

When we spoke about puberty I invited him to tell me what he already knew about it.

"Your voice drops and you start getting really strong and really hairy," he told me.

"And tell me what else you know about it," I encouraged.

"Well, its time to start dating and getting together with girls. They get breasts and want you to spend money on them," he finished.


"Where did you learn this?" I asked.

"Just around."

"Okay," I replied. "How about I tell you what I think is missing from that."

He nodded.

"Your body is going to be going through a lot of chemical changes inside. The point of them is to help you grow responsible for yourself when you live on your own. They'll steer you into relationships with people so you can learn more about sharing yourself as an adult. Sex becomes very interesting and women become very mysterious. I'm here to help you learn what I know about it and when you need help outside of me you have your Uncle to talk to."

"Okay, Dad."

And that was pretty much it. Until he called me and asked,

"What is masturbation?"

He was with his best friend's Grandmother and both boys had asked her the question to begin with.

She immediately told them they'd have to ask their Dad's.

My son, I'm proud to say, asked if he could call me that minute.

I was renting videos at that time and didn't recognize the number on my phone, but I took the call just sensing that there was some importance to it.

"Dad, I have a question," came his little voice through the headset.

"Sure son, what is it?"

By now you know what he asked.

And I was stoked to give him the info he needed.

"Romeo, remember when we were talking about Puberty the other day?"


"Okay, well this is related. Tell me what you know about Masturbation so far."

"Nothing. I just heard it on an episode of Family Guy."


"Okay, when people pass into puberty their bodies are going through all these chemical and hormonal changes. Some of the ways they use all that energy are physical. People join sports teams or acting classes or learn to express themselves in new ways. And, some of the energy can only be expressed sexually, which means when two people come together and share their bodies physically. Kinda like in the movies when people kiss, only they take it farther."

"Yeah," he said, to make sure I knew he was listening.

"Now," I told him, "not everyone has someone they can express themselves sexually with and they still need a physical release of that kind of energy. So, for men, they'll play with their penises until sperm comes out and it can make a big change in their quality of attention."

"Okay, Dad. And for women, they play with their vagina?"


"How soon am I supposed to start?"

"There's no 'supposed to', son. And, I'm pretty sure you'll know when it is," I assured him.

He paused.

"Do you have any other questions?" I asked.

"I don't think so."

"How was that for you? To hear my answer?" I asked.

"Fine," he replied sincerely.

"Did you notice yourself getting uncomfortable?"


He sounded as though it were no big deal. As if he expected me to have accurate and complete information. He also sounded as though he were totally at ease having this conversation over the phone in front of his best friend and best-friend's Grandmother.

Realizing I'd been on speaker this whole time I asked the Grandmother if I'd missed anything.

"No, I think you got it," she replied. Hearing her embarrassment over the phone I could tell she was eager to wrap this up.

"Romeo? Do you have any more questions about this?"

"Nope," he replied, satisfied. "Talk to you later."

"Okay, if any come up, make sure you let me know," I offered.

We've since spoken once or twice about the topic and it is still with the comfort and ease of that call. Over the years he's realized I'm a safe place to bring this type of thing.

Now I'm no parenting expert. I'm a student. And I'm passionate about raising children to take responsibility for themselves from the beginning.

Teaching children responsibility is a skill. It is a practice. And having the kind of result I'm pointing to above is a choice.

I'm really grateful Paul brought this up because it is really critical stuff. I'm in the process of launching a site for parents who are seeking tools and techniques which can allow them to move their families from struggle to cooperation.

It's all based on the work of Dr. Jayne A. Major, Ph.D. If you are interested in getting some of her best work check out a simple introduction page at Breakthrough Parenting Online and take a peak.

Most of her work is available there with no commitments. For the sake of transparency, she and I are business partners and we are launching a series of offerings in the coming months that speak to this topic of how to raise children very specifically.

I'm grateful to Paul for tackling this one. It is pivotal to our children's futures.


Gerard said...

you're very good - my education was sadly lacking in detail - I'm surprised I made it thru!

garenp said...

great stuff!

i laughed, i cried.

i love you


Gavin said...

so when can i start?

Anselm said...

Well done, and thanks for sharing your experience and commitment to your son and his becoming the best man he can be. Very inspiring.

Andy said...

Great Post! Exciting, truthful, heartfelt, and intelligent. Looking forward to more.

You and Romeo are in good hands with each other on the parenting adventure!


The Crazy Colombian said...


this is the first and only post I have read from your blog, but I can tell you I am already hooked. As a father of 2 boys (1.5 & 3.5 years of age), I am excited to hear about your project.

I was lucky to find you through a hyperlink on a comment on a post in Zen Habits by Leo Babauta (I highly recommend the post - it is called "A letter to my Son, on starting out on life" and can be found at

Back to your post: It was truly inspiring. I have always wanted to be the kind of father that is there for his children, yet gives them the space to come for advise when they need it *and* are ready to ask for help. With a topic such as masturbation and sex, the societal norms and its current status as 'taboo topics' makes this even more tricky.

Your post showed by example a wonderful way to approach this type of situation. I wish you and Dr. Jayne A. Major the best of luck on your collaborative project.

Best of Luck,

The Crazy Colombian

christine said...

Thank you for posting the link Lies We Tell Kids, Paul Graham. Working with children and having two of my own I’ll use this as a resource. Good luck with your project