Content warning: child sexual abuse
I’ve wanted to write about this for a while but faced serious writer’s block, which I have concluded means I’ve been afraid of writing it the wrong way and getting negative feedback. But that’s exactly why I need to write it, as it turns out. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I sincerely believe it is important, so here it goes.
Private parts are NOT bad words.
We need to teach our kids the real names of their private parts. We need to let them talk about them as they would any body part, and we need to stop cringing when they use their private parts’ real names in public. Yes, it may feel very awkward to us, but that’s because we are very well conditioned to think of the words penis, vagina, vulva, testicle, anus, breast, and nipple as “four-letter words” or “dirty words” or just plain taboo.
So the process of teaching our children the real words to refer to their genitalia instead of cutesy words we used ourselves as kids is going to be difficult, not just because it may go against the grain, but because we may find ourselves pushing against our own internalized, pre-conceived ideas. We may have to unlearn what we’ve been conditioned to believe about our private parts and the correct terminology to refer to them. But trust me, it’s worth it. And it may be life saving.
Bodily autonomy and safety
I don’t know about you, but as a young girl I did not feel comfortable at the mention of anyone’s private parts, let alone my own. Through nobody’s fault, I felt my private parts were a taboo topic. All private parts. It was not something we talked about unless absolutely necessary, and although I felt safe talking about most things to my parents, I only did so if there was an issue or problem.
The issue of safety around my body was not an issue for me when I was a child, and for that I am grateful and feel fortunate. But that is not the case for many children around the world. The statistics around child abuse and neglect are staggering, even if we’re fortunate enough not to be part of those numbers.
A child’s ability to understand his or her body parts, their names, their purposes, and the fact that they themselves are in control of them and not someone else (with the exception of safe family members and health workers), can actually become a matter of life or death. Our children ought to be able to feel safe in their own bodies. They ought to know that their bodies belong to them and that they should trust their instincts when it comes to safety. And it is our job as their parents to step outside our comfort zones and teach them these things.
Unfortunately, some of us may be faced with a situation we don’t want to imagine right now, affecting our children or children we know. And if that happens, I think we can all agree that we would want our children to be able to explain what happened to them and which body parts were involved — in a manner that can be understood by the relevant adult experts who will need accurate information in order to help.
I want to make clear, though, that I am not implying private parts should not be considered private. We can still teach our children about morals based on our personal values. We can still expect them to be respectful and keep their private parts private in public places. It does not have to be an either/or situation.
Raise your hand if you struggle with body acceptance. I have a feeling I’m not the only one. We are exposed to messaging from a young age that honestly messes things up for us. And to think we all started out so confident! Have you come across your little ones staring at themselves in the mirror? Or strutting their stuff like they know they are amazing and unique and there is nothing that needs to change? My daughter has told me since she was a toddler that she loves herself. And every time I have thanked God and also immediately prayed for this confidence to never go away. But I know it’s only a matter of time. And if I could do anything to prolong the time it takes for her to start criticizing her body or comparing it to those of her peers, believe me, I would jump at the opportunity.
I think this is one such opportunity. My 6-year-old daughter knows the names of her private parts. She always has. Well, I guess when she was a toddler she called them cutesy names, like bam-bam for “the front private part” and bum-bum for “the back one.” But for a few years now, she has known breasts, nipples, vulva, clitoris, and vagina. (She calls her buttocks “butt cheeks” instead, but I think that’s pretty self-explanatory, right?)
The truth is, what I’ve experienced with my daughter and these body part names has been life changing. She has zero shame. And no, she does not go around in public talking about her private parts or showing them to people. But she is not embarrassed of her parts, she does not think they’re dirty or yucky, and she feels very comfortable in her own skin. I love this. When I’m having a rough day thinking I’ve ruined my kids, I look on my daughter’s confidence as evidence that I’m doing something right. We do not make a big deal about the names of body parts, and our kids know it’s no big deal.
When I was growing up, I was embarrassed about my private parts. I think if I hadn’t been, I might have avoided a lot of discomfort around other girls when I started developing. I might have seen myself in a different light. I might have appreciated all of me and not just the parts of me that I thought were good enough or conformed to beauty ideals. So whatever happens, I’m hanging on to the hope that what we’re doing is going to help our children love and accept their bodies at least a little bit longer.
A final word
My advice to you today, if you haven’t been doing so already, is to please start referring to all of your own and your children’s body parts by their proper names. If they ask why you’re calling their wee-wee a penis now or their gi-gi a vulva, just be honest. Tell them those are the real names for those parts and you want to make sure they know them and feel comfortable using the real names from now on. You will be doing your children a great service, and they will probably get used to it in no time. If you were already using the correct terminology for genitals with your kids (and this includes calling the external female genitalia vulva and NOT vagina, which is inside), then rock on and keep on keeping on!
This is an issue that has been written about at length. I encourage you to read up on this further and figure out what works best for you. A quick search will yield various interesting articles, including ones published in the New York Times (2016), Psychology Today (2017), and A Mighty Girl (2021), among others. These also provide additional helpful resources to look into.