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.

Penises and vulvas – and anuses for that matter – should not be exposed to or touched by others (assume we are talking about very young children who are not sexually active) – unlike your elbow or your nose. So all body parts are not created “equal” in that way. I am confused by the suggestion that teaching kids about private parts naturally assumes they should be ashamed. Or that I can’t accurately teach my children what parts are off limits to others if I don’t use the words penis or vulva.

And despite being a woman myself, the female situation has me downright bewildered. I was sure I had learned the appropriate word for a girl’s private parts was vulva, though I keep hearing ‘vagina’ from experts and peers. And if you tell me vulva is the correct term but that vagina has become more socially acceptable, I’m even more confused. If a doctor would understand what she was saying if she said vagina when she really meant vulva (or visa versa), why couldn’t I expect him to understand if she said pee-pee?

I feel sorry for my children that they have a mother who is not 100% comfortable with the correct anatomical terms for male and female genitalia, really I do. It’s not fun to be reminded on a regular basis how my less than overwhelming comfort with the words penis and vulva are doing irreparable harm to my kids. But the fact is that I’m not comfortable with those words and they feel so clinical and sterile to me. Without any shame around my body or sex, I just feel awkward using those words. You can shame me all you want, but that won’t change my own level of familiarity or comfort with those particular words.

Those parents who use the words penis and vulva with ease will surely have children who are better off than mine. Or maybe not. Because maybe what matters just as much as the words is the message. And I’m totally on board with what Laura Palumbo, a prevention specialist with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center says are the do’s and don’ts of talking to your kids:

Educators and parents should communicate accurately, without stigma or shame, she says. This helps children who “have important health questions or an experience they’re concerned about talk with adults about their concerns,” whether the child is seven or seventeen.

 

“We don’t want kids to think they’re going to get in trouble by asking questions about sexual matters and health,” Palumbo says. When officials pull a teacher into an investigation or escort a legislator from her state house floor for using the word “vagina,” or a parent removes a child from a class that uses the word “penis,” children are more likely to think their questions will get them in trouble, she says. This shuts down communication, reinforcing the culture of secrets and silence perpetrators rely on for cover.

The fact of the matter is some parents are not comfortable teaching kids penis vulva and vagina. Instead, they use slang words for their child’s private parts and it doesn’t necessarily mean their kids are going to be scarred or any less open to talking to their parents than other children. Parents can be educated and informed, but they do not have to see things the same way others do, no matter how many degrees those experts put around their name. Nor should they be forced to, especially out of shame. We are all just trying to do the best we can with our own baggage.

Until I get there on my own, the seething judgment isn’t helping me or my kids. But maybe, just maybe, even without the best words, I can still convey the right message to them.

(photo: dotshock/Shutterstock)