My 13-year-old son is at the full bloom of adolescence. I'm suspicious that he may be masturbating when he's alone, but I don't quite know how to approach him about it. Should I be concerned, and if so, what should I say to him?
I don't think you should invade that private world at all unless there are unique circumstances that lead you to do so. I offer that advice while acknowledging that masturbation is a highly controversial subject and parents differ widely in their perspectives on it. I will answer your question, but I hope you understand that better men and women than I will differ radically and emotionally with what I will say.
First, let's consider masturbation from a medical perspective. We can say without fear of contradiction that there is no scientific evidence to indicate that this act is harmful to the body. Despite terrifying warnings given to young people historically, it does not cause blindness, weakness, mental retardation or any other physical problem. If it did, the entire male population and about half of females would be blind, weak, simple-minded and sick.
Between 95 percent to 98 percent of all boys engage in this practice and the rest have been known to lie. It is as close to universal behavior as is likely to occur. A lesser but still significant percentage of girls also engage in what was once called "self-gratification."
As for the emotional consequences of masturbation, only three circumstances should give us cause for concern. The first is when it is associated with oppressive guilt from which the individual can't escape.
A boy may promise a thousand times with great sincerity never again to commit this despicable act. Then a week or two passes, or perhaps several months. Eventually, the hormonal pressures accumulate until nearly every waking moment reverberates with sexual desire. Finally, in a moment (and I do mean "a moment") of weakness, it happens again. I am convinced that some teen-agers have thrown over their faith because of their inability to please God on this point of masturbation.
The second circumstance in which masturbation might have harmful implications is when it becomes extremely obsessive. That is more likely to occur when it has been understood by the individual to be "forbidden fruit." I believe the best way to prevent that kind of obsessive response is for adults not to emphasize or condemn it.
Regardless of what you do, you will not stop the practice of masturbation in your teen-agers. That is a certainty. You'll just drive it underground or under covers. Nothing works as a "cure." Cold showers, lots of exercise, many activities and awesome threats are ineffective. Attempting to suppress this act is one campaign that is destined to fail so why wage it?
The third situation around which we should be concerned is when the young person becomes addicted to pornographic material. The kind of obscenity available to teen-agers today has the capacity to grab and hold a boy it's usually a boy for the rest of his life. Parents will want to intervene if there is evidence that their son or daughter is heading down that well-worn path.
The fourth concern about masturbation refers not to adolescents but to us as adults. This habit has the capacity to follow us into marriage and become a substitution for healthy sexual interaction between a husband and wife. The implications of that for a meaningful sex life are obvious.
So what should parents say to their kids about this subject? My advice is to say nothing after puberty has occurred. You will only cause embarrassment and discomfort. For those who are younger, it would be wise to include the subject of masturbation in the "preparing for adolescence" conversation I have recommended on other occasions. Discuss the subject openly and confidently before it has become an issue in the child's experience.
Those are my views, for what they are worth. I know my recommendations will be inflammatory to some people. If you are one of them, please forgive me.
Dobson is president of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, P.O. Box 444, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80903; or www.family.org.