Writer and broadcaster

My son has started to play with himself in public. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

I have a son in his first few years of school. We like swimming (he’s very proficient) and have a child-friendly leisure centre close by with flumes, a wave machine and all sorts of fun stuff. I have noticed recently that my son has started manoeuvring himself in certain parts of the pool so that the rush of water washes over his groin. In short, he is experimenting with his nascent physical awareness, and becoming aware of gratification. He is unaware that his behaviour is in any way “sexual”, or that he is engaging in anything other than play.

I’m happy he is exploring himself this way. I want him to be able to discover his body without shame.

But he is becoming increasingly blase in public. Already some older children have noticed his actions and have giggled. I am at a loss as to how to approach it with him. I don’t want to shame him. I don’t want him to feel ridiculed. I don’t want him to feel guilt. But I refuse to let him be the butt of older kids’ jokes.


You could do nothing and see what happens and deal with any problems as they occur. It’s important to note that, for your son, this isn’t a problem yet – all those scenarios that you fear may not happen. I do sometimes feel, as parents these days we overthink everything (I am at the front of the queue for this).

It’s not an uncommon worry for parents when children seem to find pleasure in stimulating or touching their genitals (remember it’s not sexual to them and won’t be for some time) to worry about it. It’s important to remember that your son is not masturbating – a process that usually involves fantasies to reach an end goal – he is just doing something that feels good to him.

I consulted child psychotherapist Dr Anthony Lee (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), who wondered what adult perspective you might be bringing to this, “What does this mean for you, what are your childhood associations about it?”

Children do, usually, have a very clear idea of what to do in a public place and what not to do. The situation you describe is different from a child stimulating themselves somewhere private, say at home, where you can largely leave them to it. But your son may see the pool as a very safe place (you say he is a proficient swimmer, so it’s obviously not an unfamiliar place for him) so, for your son, the pool may not be a public place but, rather, somewhere where he feels very safe.

However, as Lee says, “If a child is exploring or stimulating their genitals in public they do need to know that it is not appropriate or safe to avoid humiliation or exploitation.”

Lee is really clear that we do not know the meaning behind why your son is doing this – beyond the obvious that for him it feels nice – but he feels that the context of the pool was “possibly important because he’s doing it in a public place. It makes me think your son may be ‘splitting off’ and going ‘into his own place’.”

If we want to think about the whys and wherefores, Lee wonders if there is anything going on at home that means your son needs to find little pockets of comfort to self-soothe: Is your wife pregnant, have there been any upsets at home (eg house move, new school etc? I note you mention he’s in his early years at school but not when he started. It’s something to think about.

So, what to do? Lee advises “stepping back from notions of guilt and shame and away from what other people may think and think about it from a more ordinary perspective”.

Ultimately, what you need to say is, “This isn’t something we do in the pool/it’s important not to do that in public.” But have that conversation at home, in a safe and private place. Start off with something like, “Do you remember in the swimming pool …”

It’s not difficult to start these conversations but what adults tend to do is panic when the questions start. As Lee says, “Finding the right words is loaded for the adult, but it’s important to attune to the child.”

Answer only the question your child asks and reply with simple, and where possible, unemotional facts. Key things to remember (if they come up, don’t overcomplicate matters by mentioning them if you don’t have to) are that certain parts of our body are private and only for us to touch – but only in certain places, not in public. Doing certain things may feel nice but we never do it in public.

Use examples that make sense to your son, eg, so we don’t go to the toilet in public for example, but it’s something we do privately. Scratching your bottom if you have an itch can feel good, but we tend not to stick our hands down our pants in front of Auntie Mary, do we?

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 21 August 2015.