Vagina, Vagina, Vagina
When I arrived to pick my daughter up from preschool the other day, I was motioned into a corner by her teacher, who presented me with an incident report to sign. My first thought was – “Is she hurt?” But, I soon learned that it was the “note sent home to your mother” kind of report. The teacher, a normally peppy 20 year-old, approached me with a serious, stern expression and handed me the written report to sign. The following whispered conversation followed:
Teacher – I need you to sign this report. K used the word “vagina” today.
Me – And…
Teacher – She kept saying it and taught all of the other kids to say it, too. I put her in time out.
Then, she started saying “penis,” too.
Me (stifling a chuckle) – We have taught K the anatomically correct words for all body parts. I don’t agree with punishing her for using them. Unless she is using them to hurt people/call names, I don’t have a problem with her using those words. If she is being disruptive or not listening, can you try a more logical consequence like having her sit quietly for a minute to calm down?
Teacher – She can’t use that word here. If she uses it again, I am putting her in time out.
Me – You seem to have given her a lot of attention for using language that you don’t like. Perhaps a better strategy would be to ignore her? I don’t want her to feel ashamed to use words like vagina and penis, because it could be important to protect her from sexual assault. I will send you an article…
Yes, I am THAT parent. Anyone who knows me would not be surprised at all to learn that it was my four year old daughter who taught the other kids at preschool the word “vagina.” I have taught my daughter all of the words for her and her brother’s reproductive anatomy. I have no problem with her using those words and getting comfortable with them, even if it’s to be silly. I think it is important for her to know them and use them.
So, my four year old knows the words vulva, labia, vagina, anus, penis, scrotum, as well as any other body part she asks me to identify. I use these words openly, casually and without shame. I have told her about how she and her brother were born (vaginally), to which she replied – “ouchie” and “how?” and I have told her about menstruation, to which she replied – “yuck.”
First of all, I don’t believe that any words are necessarily bad. I admit, I swear often, despite a conscious effort to avoid it. I think that words should be used appropriately, in context and without the intention to hurt others. Saying “fuck” because you stub your toe or spill your coffee is different than calling someone a “fuckhead” or telling someone to “fuck off.” The only words that I specifically don’t use are the “N” word, the “R” and the other “F” word (the one that rhymes with hag and bag), because they have become almost exclusively words used to hurt and marginalize others in our vernacular.
Secondly, research shows that teaching children anatomically correct terms in an age-appropriate way promotes positive body image, self confidence and parent-child communication, may discourage perpetrators and helps both children and adults who have been sexually assaulted feel more comfortable reporting assault. Experts promote teaching a standard set of terminology for “private” parts and teaching your kids that these parts are “private.” Kids should be encouraged to use these words and ask questions about all of their body parts without feeling shame.
I want my children to feel comfortable talking to me about anything. I want them to trust me, even when they have to tell me or ask me something embarrassing or scary. By teaching them the right words, my children can tell perpetrators – “no, please don’t touch my vulva/penis,” which experts believe can deter sexual assault. And later, when they are older, I want them to know that they can ask me or another trusted adult about birth control, safer sex, love, body hair, puberty, periods and all of the other wonderful and often embarrassing things that come with growing up, without shame.
Every time someone is silenced when they use these words, we contribute to a culture of shame, one that I believe contributes to a society where kids and adults are sexually assaulted and those crimes go unreported and where kids don’t learn how to stay safe and healthy because they are embarrassed.
So, I asked K about it when we got home. She giggled a lot. She told me that she said it to see what her teacher would say, which I knew. I told her that she can use the word vagina all she wants at home, but that it might be better not to use it at school unless she is talking about her body. We then had a fun conversation about all of the different body parts we know and what they do and how amazing our bodies are. And yes, we used the word vagina.
Image Credits: Pakiki and Thuglifeshirts (where the shirt is for sale!)
It irritates me when people say “I can’t teach my kids those words because it’s just so weird to hear it coming from a little kid’s mouth.” Exactly. It’s weird for *us*. That’s why we need to work hard to not pass on our puritanical baggage.
Yep – this is called projection. Our kids aren’t little adults. One shouldn’t assume that because they associate the word vagina with sex that a child does.
Oh I am right there with you. So far, Mo has kept her anatomical knowledge to herself. We’ll see how long that lasts.
I was secretly stoked listening to my then three-year-old correct the mother of one of her friends who was supervising them in the bath – ‘But X, I can’t wash my vagina because it’s INSIDE!’ Fortunately the other mum is a laid back, smart woman who replied ‘Yes, of course, my mistake, it is too! Make sure you wash your vulva then. Vaginas don’t need washing, they keep themselves clean!’ which is exactly what I would have wanted her to say.
Don’t get me started on the SIL who asked us not to let Miss (now) 4.5 to say ‘vulva’ in front of her 6-year-old male cousin because ‘it’s a porno word’ ::::eyeroll::::
I am totally that person who says – “you mean vulva?” almost automatically when someone says vagina. I try to stop myself. 🙂
We taught the kids the correct terms, too.
And since we’re not very prude, they also know how we look naked, and how a man’s penis looks, and that mummy has hair and and and. And we tought them young not only where babies come from, but also how they get in there in the first place (I seriously recommend “Mummy laid an egg”, or as y friend’s call it “the children’s Kama Sutra”).
And I also differentiate between cursing, name calling and slurring. Cursing is totally OK. My dad in law wanted to annoy me by teaching the kids the word “shit” only to find out that mummy had done so long ago. If they want to curse at the godsdamn shoelaces they are free to do so. Name-calling is not OK because they’re to young to understand the implications. And slurs. Not. At. All.
Wonderful article! And where can I get one of those T-shirts for my wife?
Click on the link in the photo credit! 🙂
Sorry if it’s in any way upsetting but could I get a general description of what the “R” word is? Am I incredibly sheltered or is it an american thing?
If it’s going to be upsetting for anyone please just delete both these comments.
The “R” word is retard or retarded. It was at one time an accepted label for people with intellectual disabilities that was used by the medical and educational communities, but is now almost synonymous with “stupid” or “lame” and is considered by most to be extremely offensive. Some, including I, feel that using the word further marginalizes intellectually disabled individuals. http://www.r-word.org/
Ah yes, sorry. I’m very much in your camp on that one, It just wasn’t popping into my head (which I’m sort of glad about) and I was sitting around running racial slurs and other horrible words and concepts through my head to try and work out what you meant which was not particularly pleasant. We have that word and a few others which I think are very UK centric which express the same sentiment. One of which, weirdly, used to be the name of a charity but has become corrupted into an offensive term for those with mental and physical disabilities. Anyway, great article. If I ever have kids I think this site will leave me far better prepared than I may otherwise have been.
I have a 4 yo daughter and 2 yo son, and they are both learning all the correct names. I told the teacher at preschool just as a heads up, and everything has been fine so far. They bathe together, and he is potty training so my girl loves to give him some encouragement, which is awesome to watch. They’ll get in the bath and she says “There’s his little naked penis.” And he will respond “There’s your naked vulva.” One of my favorite stories to tell is the time we four were out at dinner in a crowded restaurant. I was signing the receipt so that we could pack up and go, and all of a sudden out of nowhere my daughter says, “Mommy, I love my vulva.” Then without even a second of hesitation sang out at the top of her voice “IT’S VAGINA TIME!!” and we all just started laughing together, packed up and left the restaurant. I would have done the same thing had a school official approached me on that particular subject.