• Wed, Apr 24 2013

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

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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  • crankylex

    You’ve admitted multiple times that this is your hangup that you are lovingly handing down to your children. What you haven’t mentioned is what you’re doing to get over it.

  • TngldBlue

    This is one of those parenting arguments that I find utterly ridiculous. To me the most important thing is that parents talk about this stuff with their children, period. If you can’t use the medical terms without feeling uncomfortable, your children will pick up on that and also feel uncomfortable which defeats the whole purpose of the conversations. So what’s better-using nicknames but having the discussions with your kids or avoiding the discussion all together because you aren’t comfortable using the specific medical terminology.

  • chickadee

    I always thought that the implication behind genital euphemisms was that the real words were embarrassing because the organs themselves are something to be embarrassed about. They aren’t, and I think that’s the message they are trying to convey. Perhaps children who become comfortable with the proper words for their genitalia will become teenagers who are comfortable discussing responsible attitudes towards sex….

    • Cee

      Well said.

  • Sean Phillips

    certainly you don’t have to use the proper terminology in everyday conversation, but they do need to know the actual words as well, just like you need to know that underneath the tummy is an organ called the stomach. and they need to be shown — not taught — that there is nothing wrong with those words because they are in fact the actual terms, and being shown otherwise will imply that there is something dirty and wrong with the actual parts as well.

  • jessica

    Vulva is the word for the external portion of the female genitalia, vagina refers to the internal part that you can’t see aside from the opening to it… in other words, the vagina is where your tampon goes. And the labia and clitoris are specific parts of the vulva. Just fyi. And now I’ve got that annoying “The more you know…” song stuck in my head. Darn it. I’ve got to find something less annoying to drown it out.

    • Laura

      Thank you! I was going to say the same thing. It annoys the crud out of me when people use the word vagina to mean all the outside parts. For example, “I shave my vagina.” It makes no sense. There is a difference between the vagina, the vulva, and the mons pubis, and I wish more people understood this.

  • disqus_QmTfJEQTFZ

    my friend only has her kids call them by nick names…biscuit and tee-pee….so yeah if her daughter ever goes and says he put his tee-pee in my biscuit..no one will know what she is talking about….my son knows it is his penis….knows girls have a vagina….he also knows the slang….he uses whatever he feels like at the time….for instance one day he might say his privates hurt the next he might say his penis hurts…..

  • Lawyerlady

    Learning the proper words is crucial if something goes wrong–like a child is sexually abused. Using slang or made up words can actually make it impossible to charge and convict a sexual predator. Also, I think part of the nickname issue, is that it suggests that if something happens concerning your genitals, you should be embarassed talking about it. If a child feels that way, s/he may be less likely to come forward is sexually assaulted.

    • anon

      Agreed – and even if nothing goes wrong, knowing the proper names is key for taking charge of our reproductive health and communicating with healthcare professionals.

  • Spiderpigmom

    “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”. :
    You didn’t “wait” until your children ask about it to tell them that their hands were called hands or that their nose was called nose, right? Why do they have to specifically ask to know that their private parts have names (whichever names you give; personally I have a preference for anatomically correct names, but it’s most definitely preferable to call your penis a pee-pee than not to have a name for it)? I mean, my son also just turned two and he knows where are his eye lashes, his elbows or his belly button; why I would let him ignore the body part he keeps playing with in the bath has a name too? That’s… weird.

  • outlaw mama

    Why can’t what we call it be as personal as what we do with it? I fired our pediatrician b/c she told my daughter it was “never ok” to touch her anus. Not sure that was the best move, but I just didn’t like the road she was going down.

    • jessica

      No you weren’t wrong. I’m not sure how old your daughter is but mine is 4 and I am absolutely positive that she would have interpreted that statement to mean that even wiping her own ass is forbidden (according to the doctor). You can see how that would be a huge problem…

  • http://twitter.com/JulesAboutTown Julie Gillis

    I feel very strongly that children and adults should know all the parts of their bodies. Yes, some parts are private, but that doesn’t mean the proper terms aren’t necessary. There is no shame in having a full knowledge of what’s what, being able to say the words, and also know that some parts are considered more private than others. Chickadee has it right, I think, that most people used made up words to discuss sexual parts of the body because there has been a cultural taboo against sex, and to name the actual parts was to acknowledge their reality. I think this could be a both and situation, right? Kids are smart. They could know the proper terms (vagina, penis, vulva, anus) but then if families needed code words for being in public (my hoo hoo hurts right now) use that too. No reason why real education can’t happen but also find ways to work in your family dynamic.

    I do believe that all children have a fundamental right to understand how their bodies work. It’s knowledge that’s been kept from them and not knowing leads to mythology, leads to false information, leads to (as they age and become sexual active) pregnancy and stds.

  • http://www.facebook.com/iwill.findu.90 Iwill Findu

    My mother was sexually abused as child, she said she once tried to tell someone what was happening and they didn’t believe her and that maybe if she had been taught to use the medical terms she could have shocked that person into listening to her. So needless I grew up medical terms.

  • Psych Student

    One of the important things about teaching children the medical terms is that it’s a good start off to comprehensive sex education. There are grown women who have never once looked at their genitals, don’t know that they have three different holes and don’t know where their clitoris is. There are men who’s foreskins don’t retract and don’t go seek medical attention because they don’t know what is supposed to happen because no one taught them. By teaching children medical terms, it can help them later on when you discuss with them various forms of sex (oral, anal, gay, straight) as well as masturbation (for both boys and girls, solo and mutual) and forms of non-penetrative sexual contact. There are so very many things that children should be taught.
    And you shouldn’t wait for children to bring it up. About a year ago (I’m 28), I was talking with my parents and confessed that I didn’t ever discuss sex topics with my mom because we never talked about such things in the home and I assumed we weren’t supposed to. She said that she assumed that if I’d had questions I’d have come talked to her. Don’t wait for your kids to initiate conversations because they might not. Sometimes you will have to talk *at* your children while they roll their eyes. It is alright to just talk at them about topics like masturbation and the like, in small doses and let them “ignore” you. They do hear you and will listen and it is helpful. (Sorry this whole comment is rather scattered).

  • Lindsey Sweet

    I’ve been using those words with my own daughter since she was little, and everytime I do lately, she gets extremely embarassed! I’ve never given her a reason to feel embarrassed about them, but now that she is in that awkward preteen age, watch out! I really think it just depends on the child. And I remember my mother doing the same with me, but it still didn’t make me feel comfortable talking to her about it. It was my MOTHER for pete’s sake! Or even worse, my DAD. Gross, lol! And that is the way it is for most children. I think Carinn is doing a fine job, as long as she gets the message across, who cares about the damn terminology. Alot of you posters are EXACTLY the judgemental people she was talking about! Get over it, and yourselves.

  • Marie S.

    I realize this post is 5 months old but I wanted to comment–as a few people have touched on, one of the reasons it is important that children now the proper names for their genitalia is in case they were molested in someway–it is easier for them to communicate to someone what happened. A teacher friend of mine once told me about a student of hers that kept telling her that her father had been touching her “pocketbook”. She (my friend) would brush it off thinking the student was talking about an actual purse, but come to find out “pocketbook” was the slang the girl had been taught to use about her genitals and her father had been molesting her for months. My friend was horrified and felt tremendously guilty that she had been brushing off the girl’s comments all that time-. That story has always haunted me, and definitely made me want to teach my kids the proper names for things on their bodies.