“MOM! I don’t want to see your BAGIMA!!”
I’m sure every nurse and doctor in the OB/GYN office heard her through the thin walls and I was blushing before the doctor even came into my pregnancy checkup. We were expecting our fourth baby after recently moving to a new place, so my then three year old had to come to my appointments with me as I didn’t know anyone well enough to leave her with at first. She made it clear she didn’t want to be along for the ride as I began undressing for the appointment.
To my relief, my doctor came in chuckling soon after, indicating he had heard, but gave me a thumbs up for using “real words” in teaching the female anatomy, even if she couldn’t pronounce it right.
There is still a lot of stigma around how to be appropriate with our kids on discussing their sexual body parts at young ages and it can be difficult to know how to navigate those conversations. They are kids, and at certain ages they don’t need to know everything, but for their safety and for establishing a healthy relationship with all of their body parts, it’s important to say something. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Call it what it is
Wee-wee, private parts, bottom, foo-foo, winkie, cookie, bathing suit area, I could name dozens more, and the LIST GOES ON.
And I get it, it can feel weird hearing “penis”, “scrotum”, “vulva” and “vagina” coming out of toddler’s mouths. It can feel too adult and maybe even inappropriate. But it is far from it, in fact it is the opposite. Not only that, but using the actual terms can be protective for your children.
Studies have shown in court cases that it is far easier to identify, heaven forbid, when a child has been abused when they can name specific areas of the body rather than an over-generalized “bottom” or other substitute words and phrases. If you grew up in a home where it felt unnatural and even perhaps shameful to say anatomical words in public, it could be helpful to take time to practice saying them outloud. To your spouse, your mom friends, your family members, yourself in the mirror- whatever works. Make it a natural part of your vocabulary and it’ll be as neutral as identifying where your elbow is.
If you feel guilty, they probably will too
Kids say and do the darndest things. And sometimes they do them in public. UGH.
Raise your proverbial hands if your kid has ever walked around with their hands in their pants. Shown off a brand new pair of underwear to the neighborhood. Walked unashamed in on you in the shower to open their snack for them. Dropped their pants to pee on a bush in the park without warning.
Whether we talk about it or not, our “private parts” are a big part of our normal daily lives, and our kids lives too. But they weren’t born knowing that the rest of the world thinks it’s weird to show off their newly discovered nipples or excitedly point out the “hugging” beetles on the leaf. And they don’t need punishment as education in these matters.
I always tried to address the more awkward public moments in terms of manners. I often explained that there’s nothing shameful about our mouths or hands, but that doesn’t mean it’s polite to eat our mashed potatoes at the restaurant with our fingers and face. There’s nothing shameful about a penis or a vagina, but it’s also where we go to the bathroom and can have germs, so only touch when necessary and always wash hands after. It’s just like any other part of the body that needs attention, and there’s nothing shameful about taking care of it like any other part of the body.
There are no bad questions. EVER
When my son was in kindergarten (kindergarten!!), he came home and asked me what the “F-word” meant, only he didn’t say “F-word”. In what I can only describe as one of my prouder parenting moments, I didn’t even flinch when he said it, although internally I wanted to berate him with questions about who exactly said the word on the playground. I just told him that as far as bad words go, it’s considered “the worst”, but that it was just a word and that as long as he wasn’t using it to be hateful or mean to anyone else, it meant nothing.
To my surprise, even with my monumental “I didn’t freak out!” success, he burst into heavy sobs immediately. He felt SO bad that he said it outloud, and wailed that he didn’t know it was a bad word. Guys, I didn’t even flinch, remember?! But he somehow had already absorbed shame for something he’d never encountered. It’s a powerful emotion, we all know it well. I was able to calm him down, but it was the start of a long and now well established road of open questions anytime. Anywhere. ANYTHING.
This should include questions about body parts. Just this last week, this same son, now in sixth grade, asked me some questions about some graphic sexual acts his friends had been talking about at school. I could have melted into a blubbery pile of “how on earth does a sixth grader know what that means” (because let’s be honest, that’s how I felt) or stiffened up and said “that’s inappropriate, your friends should not be talking about it and you need to tell a teacher,” but I didn’t. I told him what those words and phrases meant. We had a conversation about the dangers that can surround those kinds of actual actions. We talked about what to do if anyone ever tried to engage him in those things, who to talk to if he needed help, how he felt about all of it in light of how our family talks about sexuality and home morals. He didn’t get in trouble, I used age-appropriate language, and he came away knowing more. Our philosophy has always been that kids can’t make educated decisions about what is appropriate language or actions or not (at school or anywhere) if they don’t know what it means.
If your child knows you are going to react negatively if you are even uncomfortable saying anything but “wee-wee” and “I’ll tell you when you’re older”, they are going to run into some tough stuff that they may not want to come talk to you about.
We teach because we love
Fostering a healthy and loving relationship with our bodies can be essential to a healthy and loving self-image throughout our lives. Sexual anatomy and function (birds and the bees is another post for another day) are how we created those danged little cherubs in the first place, and we owe it to them to educate in a way that protects and engenders positivity. It starts now, and it will last a lifetime.