As a child, I remember the women in my family specifically prancing around the correct terminology for my vagina. They would tell me about how to clean my "lady bits," educate me on when it was the right time to try out tampons for my "sugar bowl," or how to tell if my metaphorical "kitty cat" was irritated from the soap I was using. The words like "vagina," "vulva," and "clitoris" were off limits — introduced to me years later during my high school health class.
Even as a young woman in college struggling with my first yeast infection, my step-mother asked me if I was sure I had a yeast infection "down there." Thinking back on it, I understand on some level why calling my vagina an actual vagina seemed like a daunting lesson to teach a little girl. It feels like a grown-up word for such a young child but in actuality, it’s totally necessary to use the proper words for our children’s body parts. While cute names seem like the right fit for children, there is an immense danger in robbing my child of the opportunity to know his body. I choose to use words like penis so that he can feel confident about his male genitalia and not shy away from it. I want him to own it, by its proper name, so that he can protect himself and be aware if something bad or unwanted happens to him.
Growing up, I didn't know why I had a hole "down below" and my brother didn't. I fumbled through understanding what it was and being confident in owning my body, vagina included. I don't want that for my son.
Like almost every other little boy to exist, my son found his penis early on and hasn't lost sight of it since. Once he learned how to talk, he asked me about the names of his body parts, asked if I also had a penis, and then when he found out I didn't, he asked me why I didn’t. When he initially brought up the topic, I was taken aback. Calling my son’s penis by this official, almost-clinical term seemed too large for a 2 year old at the time.
For a while, I struggled with deciding between cutesy names like "tinkle stick" and "Vienna sausage" and calling his penis exactly what it is. I decided that I’d leave the cutesy names to my son’s invisible friends and future pets and far away from his body parts. A friend of mine who I often look to for motherhood advice said she was very open with her daughter from a young age about her body and she is raising a confident, bright, and very smart child. She told me how important it was for children to know that their body parts are not something to be afraid of. I loved that, and heeding her advice, I felt that using the actual terms for my son's body parts was the right choice for us.
While I'm not as creative as I’d like to be when it comes to making up fun names, the real reason I decided to use the proper words when teaching my son about his body goes far beyond creativity. The truth is that children are susceptible to physical and sexual abuse. According to the National Children's Alliance, 683,000 children were victims of abuse in 2015. It’s a horrifying truth, but it doesn’t go away by ignoring it. I know that I can’t be with my son every second of every single day (if I plan on staying sane, at least), and it's my job as his parent to make sure that he understands the difference between a good touch and a bad touch. He needs to know that his penis, butt, and testicles are off limits, and that no one should touch them or make him uncomfortable without his explicit consent.
My son is a toddler now, but eventually he will grow up, and I don’t think 15 is the right time to let him know that his "weenie" is actually a penis.
According to sexual violence prevention educator Kate Rohdenberg in an interview with The Atlantic, using the anatomically correct terms for your children’s genitals “promotes positive body image, self confidence, and parent-child communication; discourages perpetrators; and, in the event of abuse, helps children and adults navigate the disclosure and forensic interview process." By simply using the correct terms instead of words like "private pole," I know I'm giving my son the best opportunity to go out into the world armed with the necessary discourse he needs to know about his own body.
My son is a toddler now, but eventually he will grow up, and I don’t think 15 is the right time to let him know that his "weenie" is actually a penis. I want to instill in him, right now, that he is in command of his body, and I don't believe you cannot be in command of something you can’t even put the proper name to.
When we initially began chatting about his body, I went over good touches and bad touches and what to do if anyone attempts a bad touch, using words like "penis" and "vagina" to explain the difference between wanted and unwanted touching. I didn't want to instill unnecessary fear in him, so I explained a bad touch is when someone touching his penis or butt without his permission or asking him to touch theirs. I explained that trusted people like mommy, daddy, and grandma were allowed to help in the shower or tub, but anything that made him feel sad or bad was not good. As he gets older, I'll expand on that foundation by going into depth about bad and good touches, strangers, and what to do; all the while using the right terms. It's important to me that he understands his right to body autonomy.
Around the same time that I’d been teaching my his body, we'd also started talking about about the dreaded "stranger danger." When I asked him what he should do if a stranger offers him his favorite candy, he looked at me and said, with conviction and assurance, “Do not touch my penis and do not touch my bones!” We’ve ironed out the details since, but I was so proud he was able to properly identify where he never wants to be touched.