Childrearing

What Is With The Insistence Around Teaching Kids The Terms Penis And Vulva? The Message Is Just As Important As The Words

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shutterstock_64931596There have been a few pieces in the news lately reminding parents that we must be teaching our kids the words penis and vulva, regardless of our own comfort levels with the words. The experts strongly encourage us by saying the words will empower our kids and definitely help in the case of sexual assault or rape. I have a four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter and I’m not sure when I will teach them the anatomical word for their private parts. But I shouldn’t feel pressured or shamed by repeated reports suggesting that my failure to use those terms will ruin my children.

Let’s be clear — I want my kids to be aware and empowered, physically, emotionally and intellectually. I hope to raise them to be strong and verbal children who know limits and boundaries of all kinds. I intend to keep lines of communication as open as possible – around their feelings, their concerns, and their bodies. But if you are telling me none of that will be possible if I don’t teach them the words penis and vulva, we might be in trouble.

My son turned four years old recently and we do not commonly use the term penis. His one-time introduction to the word at school (from a pal at school, not by the teacher) yielded no reaction from me and he hasn’t used it since. If it had stuck I planned to continue using it, but it didn’t. We don’t use any funny words as a replacement for the noun penis, though we do use “I have to go pee-pee” as the verb because that’s my preference and no one has yet insisted I use the word urinate with my preschooler. My daughter just turned two years old and though she has not yet asked about her, or her brother’s genitalia, I suspect she will start asking questions sooner than my son. I can assure you though – at these ages they feel no shame around their bodies and it makes me proud to know it.

As for my reasoning, I don’t dwell in either extreme of this argument. I don’t think they will be ruined or suffer a loss of innocence once they know the word penis or vulva, but I also don’t think that knowing those terms will be the end-all-be-all on feeling empowered in their bodies. In fact, my hesitation in using those words with them is my hang-up, not theirs. I just find the words awkward and clinical.

And the insistence that I teach them the right thing is all pretty confusing to me, even as an adult. Is it about teaching my children terms they can accurately identify or is it about using the exact medical terminology? It is important that we generate universal terms for these body parts, but it shouldn’t be slang in any way? If belly is acceptable informal language, why isn’t pee-pee? A piece published yesterday on Today Moms explains:

“It makes communication clearer because they can tell someone, ‘He put his penis in my vagina,’” said Dr. Bob Sege, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. “More importantly, it communicates that the adults can hear about that part of the body” from a child, and that “it’s not something you have to hide.”

Except that those parts of the body are things they should hide — not in shame, but out of propriety and self-respect.

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