Recently, I was sitting with a neighbor in her driveway as her young children were coloring on the driveway with chalk. The children would take turns lying down as we traced their outlines, and then they would jump up to draw in their eyes, noses and mouths. One of her sons completed his figure by drawing a line between his legs. When his mom asked what he had drawn there, he said it was his penis. Looking shocked she exclaimed, “Don’t say that! Go sit in a timeout!”
As a sexual health educator, I have spent much of my career teaching young people the correct terminology for their sexual anatomy and undoing all of the nicknames and slang terms that parents (and other adult caregivers) teach their children (“pee-pee,” “vajayjay,” “hoo-hoo” and on and on). I have also helped young people overcome their embarrassment and fear of saying words like “penis” and “vagina” out loud. It is important for people of all ages, even young children, to know the proper names for all of their body parts and how they function, so that if something is wrong they can seek help or ask questions in the pediatrician’s or school nurse’s office.
A parent is a child’s first and most influential sexuality educator. From day one, parents send strong messages to their children about all aspects of sexuality, including how they should feel about their bodies. These messages are conveyed through the words, body language and tone of voice used when discussing body parts and how they work. It is vital for parents to have open and honest discussions with children of all ages to keep their kids healthy and to teach them how to communicate and set boundaries with others in order to help prevent sexual abuse. These early dialogues let kids know that they can go to their parent(s) with any questions they may have about their bodies, and will also make discussions about sexuality much easier as the child grows into a teenager and young adult.
A child needs to feel good about his or her entire body. When slang terms are used or it’s forbidden to even mention a body part, it sends a message that these parts are somehow shameful or dirtier than other body parts. I hope that all parents stop to consider the message they are sending when they use slang terms, or even worse, when they do not name the parts at all or simply don’t talk about them. Our sexual anatomy is as much a part of our bodies as our elbows and knees. We need to name them and talk about how they work, so that we can take care of them and keep them healthy.