I’m not a parent, but I am told by my many friends who are parents that one of the toughest things to do is have “the talk” with their children. It’s embarrassing. They feel like they’re robbing their children’s innocence. It’s embarrassing. It’s an admission that their babies are growing up. It’s embarrassing. And so on.
Did you know one of the best ways to protect your child is to start talking about it early? That doesn’t mean you need to sit your two-year-old down and explain the reproductive system and the entire sex act – far from it! What you discuss with your child should be developmentally appropriate, but it needs to start soon. Teaching your child the correct words for his or her genitalia from the beginning should be top on the priority list.
Adults get all worked up over the words penis and vagina, yet they have no problem using the “dirty” words. Why is that? We call a leg a leg, a hand a hand, and an eye an eye, so what’s with the renaming? Discretion is one thing. We walk around in public saying, “I bumped my head,” or, “I skinned my knee.” We don’t usually talk openly about our genitalia, and we keep those things private. It’s part of why we call it our “private parts”. But it’s another thing entirely to be so embarrassed by our body parts that we teach children to use “cutesy” names for them. In doing so, we teach children to be embarrassed and ashamed of their bodies, too. We also set them up to be easily targeted.
One of the things people who abuse children sexually look for is a child who doesn’t know the correct names for her genitalia. If a child doesn’t even have a “cute” name for it, the abuser will assign one for her to use. This way, if the child decides to tell, the person to whom she discloses the abuse may not have a clue what the child is talking about. “My dad touched my frog” might elicit a snicker from the child’s camp counselor or a “Gee, that was random” from her teacher.
In talking about this subject with a few people, they’ve said to me, “Well, I think I’d know what that meant” or “Yeah, but in context it’s pretty obvious what the child would be talking about.” True, but kids don’t usually wait for a discussion on puberty or childhood sexual abuse to tell someone that they’ve been abused. Children often, though not always, will work up their nerve and give a little snippet to get a sense of whether or not it is safe to continue, a kind of testing of the waters. If they use a silly word that makes no sense to the adult and the adult laughs or brushes the child off, the child is left with a sense of guilt for making a big deal out of it or shame and embarrassment for bringing it up in the first place, not realizing the adult doesn’t understand what she means. And then we sit on our sofas and judge the adult who “didn’t do anything” about it.
In creating the video for this post, I poked around in some parent forums online to see what people were teaching their children to call their genitalia. I was more stunned by the comments than the words they were using. One parent said, “She’s four, she doesn’t know the word penis yet. I’m sure she’d be able to catch on if she got abused.” Does that take your breath away? It did mine. If I had a four-year-old daughter I’m pretty sure I’d rather she learn that word from me instead of waiting for someone to abuse her. If a person who is abusing a four-year-old is going to take the time to teach her a a word for penis, it definitely won’t be the correct one.
Another quote I included was from the parent of a fourth grader where I taught nearly a decade ago. She was upset her son had to take the human growth and development class and said, “Well, I just don’t see why he needs to learn the word penis yet, he’s only in the fourth grade!” There are a lot of children for whom the abuse is over and done with by the time fourth grade rolls around. Besides, how long do you really want your nine- or ten-year-old wandering the universe calling it his “winkie”? By the time kids hit middle school the cutesy words are no longer cute and become something else to be embarrassed by. They start to become replaced with ones like pussy or dick, what we call “dirty words” and ask people not to use in public. Those words become associated with weaknesses or negative personality traits, further shoving those body parts into a shame-filled corner.
One last thought…. One person in the forums mentioned how embarrassed she’d be if her son suddenly yelled out penis in the grocery store. One of the funniest stories my sister tells is of the time she took her then three-year-old son to the grocery store and he started running up and down the aisles yelling “shit shit shit shit shit!”. She was embarrassed for about an hour, but nobody died, she wasn’t kicked out, and nobody pointed fingers at her the next time she went in. It happens. Your child’s safety should be of far greater concern than being embarrassed in the grocery store, don’t you think?