How to Address the Masturbating Child

A cautionary tale of parental neuroses
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GallivantingGirl/Flickr

Perspective is the rarest commodity in parenting. We tend to fool ourselves into thinking that our worries are the right worries. The things they worried about in the past: those things were silly! We now know what really matters -- and we have peer-reviewed proof. It turns out that for a very long time, parents have told themselves that this new worrying thing is the thing that really matters -- and like us, they have thought that the science backed them up too.

Thumb-sucking was at least visible.

We almost never look back at what parents of the past freaked out about. But we should. It's only by looking back that we can gain some humility about our own anxieties. We should remember, for example, that a century ago, at the dawn of the new scientific age of child-rearing, the gravest threat to the future of American children was the existence of their own genitals.

The specter of masturbation had long haunted the authorities. For centuries, it had been linked to mental illness at worst and a sort of general dissipation at best. (It was draining, you see.) In 1760, the Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot wrote the founding text of masturbation anxiety, the sky-is-falling opus L'Onanisme, in which self-stimulation leads inexorably to physical decrepitude. (This is scarcely an exaggeration.)

But at the turn of the twentieth century, this anxiety is expressed not in the faux-medical language of Tissot and his followers but in the new scientific language of child-rearing. Imagine opening up your modern parenting book by Harvey Karp or your T. Berry Brazelton and reading that your baby touching himself, however idly, threatened his entire future.

In the 1910s and 20s, "sliding down banisters, persistent tree-climbing, and dangling astride daddy's legs were discouraged. Back-buttoned pajamas were recommended."

That's what naive mothers, paging through the 1914 edition of Infant Care, the U.S. Children's Bureau's hugely popular new childrearing brochure, learned: their precious, innocent infants would be "wrecked for life" by masturbation.

The consequences were no less severe with age. The child psychologist Stanley Hall, in his seminal writings on adolescence, called masturbation "a dangerous malady," but that hardly captures the strength of his feelings. He thought it corrupted the character and ruined the body: an adolescent boy might have his pleasure but he was risking nothing less than the rest of his life.

What's surprising is that the experts feared masturbation in infancy no less than masturbation in adolescence. And both were attacked without mercy. The attitude toward masturbation mirrored the attitude toward thumb-sucking (ruinous, debauched). But thumb-sucking was at least visible. For parents and experts in mortal fear of masturbation, almost any seemingly innocent activity might be a disguise for self-stimulation. Or it might awaken a desire for it. In the 1910s and 20s, as the writer Christina Hardyment has observed, "sliding down banisters, persistent tree-climbing, and dangling astride daddy's legs were discouraged. Back-buttoned pajamas were recommended." If nothing ever touched the pelvic region, the child might simply never notice anything was there. The goal, apparently, was to have a child retire on his or her wedding night, disrobe -- and find that his body had somehow sprouted genitals.

5571463441_643ca2620e_binset.jpgdougbelshaw/Flickr

But success required ceaseless vigilance. Tree-climbing might be acceptable, but persistent tree-climbing was cause for concern. "The habit of masturbation may start accidentally from the sensations that a child gets when riding on someone's foot or on a cane or when drawers are tight enough to rub," according to the 1931 edition of The Child from One to Six, another Children's Bureau publication. "Such things should be avoided."

The list of things to be avoided was long. A German pediatrician's turn-of-the-century opus on the subject discouraged long walks and long periods of sitting. It wasn't clear what was left for a child to do. (Aside from setting an egg timer.) For seemingly incurable cases, "a canvas vest with a metal cup over the genitals" was recommended. Other pediatricians recommended small bells, attached to a child's hands during the night, to warn parents of any untoward hand movements.

You can see how the still-nascent disciplines of child psychology and pediatrics pounce on the problem of masturbation. As the sociologist Steven Ward has noted, by establishing masturbation as a deeply worrying, deeply important problem, psychologists established themselves as an indispensible authority. (The medical historian Jonathan Gillis has made a similar argument about thumb-sucking and pediatricians.) Ultimately, the masturbation madness might not have been very helpful for the parents or the children involved, but it was very useful for the psychologists.

The 1920s were the height of behaviorism in child psychology: the belief that children can be taught to do, or not to do, pretty much anything. Many psychologists, including the infamous behaviorist John Watson, argued that masturbation and thumb-sucking were habits that could be untaught, and moreover, that they were so malignant they were worth preventing at all costs -- even if the cost was the child not being able to move. Infants had their nightgowns pinned to their cribs. Their elbows were strapped to splints (to prevent wayward arm-bending), or their knees were strapped together (to prevent wayward leg-opening). Their hands were stuffed in mittens or tied down.

In 1914, the manual told mothers that masturbation would wreck their children for life. In 1942, it told mothers that they should ignore the habit altogether.

This treatment was not some weird, deviant aberration from the standard advice. It was the standard advice. "It was doubtless an exaggeration to claim that tied hands were commonplace at the beginning of the twentieth century," the authors of a cultural history of masturbation write, "but the recommendations to this effect and the examples that were cited are numerous. A Scottish woman recalled that, as a child during this period, her hands had sometimes been so tightly tied that her piano teacher questioned her about her striped wrists."

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