Because they are grown up and kind of embarrassing parts of the body, in our house, we called kneecaps ‘stick benders’.
Can you imagine? For many of us, when we grew up there were body parts that had made up names. If we try to articulate why exactly, it seems rather absurd, and yet many of us perpetuate the absurdity.
We might think it’s cute to hear our toddlers say ‘pee-pee’ instead of vulva and penis but really, it’s no cuter than hearing them say banana or shoe. Everything they utter is adorable.
We don’t really have made up names for body parts other than our genitalia. When we provide pet names, the message is that real names for those parts of the body are unacceptable. Somehow wrong. And this creates a kind of shame, and a lack of dignity for our bodies, that we pass along to our kids.
Maybe that feels like hysteria or at least an overstatement but I don’t think so. We live in a culture that glorifies one type of body (thin and taut) which leaves most of us desperately disappointed. Body pride is definitely the way to go.
By equipping our very young kids with slang terms for their genitalia, it keeps them in the dark about their body parts and also puts them at risk of harm. Research shows that some kids do not report sexual abuse because they learned they shouldn’t say ‘those’ words. Or kids try to report abuse but because they’re only equipped with cutsie names, they’re either misunderstood or disbelieved.
With the proper names for their body parts and our ongoing openness about how they function, our kids develop comfort in communicating honestly and openly about their bodies. If your kid has an infection (bladder infections can cause burning when you pee) or if they’re hurt (a fall can cause bruising of the pubic bone or if at the water park they somehow scrape their labia or scrotum), you’ll hear about it right away. Proper words also protect our kids since abusers seek out children who don’t know about their bodies. Ill-intentioned adults look for kids who are ill-equipped. Dinky and vava might scream ‘uninformed kid’ while vulva and testicles says ‘my parents tell me about appropriate and inappropriate touching’.
It’s not just important to teach our kids to love and respect their own bodies. It’s equally important for them to learn the names of the body parts of the other sex. We ought to highlight all the similarities among males and females and point out the fabulous differences. If our kids can express their curiosity with a sense of wonder today they’ll more likely talk to their future sexual partners about bodies without hesitation or embarrassment.
Of course our kids will learn slang. But it makes sense that as parents we equip our kids with the right words from the beginning and let the other words be added later.
In June, my six year old and I were walking home. He said ‘Mommy, I know another way of saying ‘penis’. ‘Dick’ was the word he had learned at school that day. I concurred that dick is indeed another way of saying penis but that it’s slang and not the scientific word. We talked about what ‘slang’ is and I gave him some other examples. Balls is slang for testicles. Boobs is slang for breasts. Bum is slang for anus or buttocks.
He asked if it was ok to say dick. I said that some people use that word all the time, some people think it’s a rude word, and other people still, might think it’s ok for an adult to use, but somewhat rude for a kid to use. I then explained that with most people, if he needs to talk about his penis, he should probably use the right word for it but that if he is talking to me about his penis, and would like to use the word dick, that I’m ok with that.
I reinforced that using the word penis or dick can seem rude if we are using the words in particular ways. If we are trying to shock friends or be really silly, we need to show some restraint and consideration.
My way of handling it isn’t the only way. As parents, we all get to set rules for our kids that reflect our values around bodies, words and behaviour. Since we are all motivated to keep our kids safe and prepare them for the rest of their lives, proper names for their bodies parts is a great place to start.[This post first appeared in www.northshoremama.ca]