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.