As someone who has been babysitting for over 10 years, I’ve probably heard fifty different words that parents use to describe their kids’ naughty bits. Really, I’ve heard it all, from pee-pee to bajingo, vee vee to private parts. As children of a self-proclaimed feminist, my brother and I grew up using only the anatomical terms for our genitalia, so it’s always interesting for me to see the other terms that children use. All of these pet-names I keep hearing have gotten me thinking about the pros and cons of using scientific terminology to describe childrens’ genitalia.
I recently came across a blog post in which a mom discusses her reasoning for using pet-names. Her argument, as far as I can tell, is that once her child learns to call his penis a penis, he’s going to throw that word around all the time, making other people uncomfortable.
“”Mommy…Daddy…I…have…a…wee!” Which of course launched him into an 8am discussion of everyone we know and whether or not they too have a magical something hanging down between their legs. Okay, I pride myself on being liberal, but I just can’t bring myself to encourage my 38 month old to call it a penis, at least not yet. Because at some point he’s going to not only tell us, but the 92 year old woman carrying her oxygen tank around Target. Wee it is.”
And you know what? She’s right. He probably will throw the word around, whether it be at home, in school, or in Target (this brings to mind a particular family story about my brother, at age 3, offering to buy my aunt a penis at Filene’s). But you know what? That “92 year old woman carrying her oxygen tank around” has probably heard the word penis a few times in her life. We teach our children all of the correct terminology for their other body parts (heads, shoulder, knees and toes, anyone?), so why leave out genitalia?
It’s important to note, however, that many of these nicknames come from children mispronouncing those anatomical terms. A parent may introduce a penis as a penis, but a two-year-old may repeat that as “pee-pee”. As Rachel Mosteller, the author of this blog post writes, “Nicknames are fun! Nicknames are silly! Nicknames are great when describing genitalia!”
There is another side of the argument. A study by Maureen Kenny and Sandy Wurtele draw a connection between preschoolers’ knowledge of their own genitalia and childhood sexual abuse. As they wrote in their article,
“When children disclose CSA using incorrect or idiosyncratic terminology (e.g., “She touched my monkey,” or “He kissed my muffin”), they may not be understood and are thus unlikely to receive a positive, supportive response to their disclosure. In contrast, disclosure using correct terminology is more likely to be understood, resulting in a more positive outcome for a childâ€”e.g., by ending the abusive situation and obtaining therapeutic assistance for the child (Kenny, Thakkar-Kolen, Ryan, Runyon, & Capri, 2008). Furthermore, children who lack sexual knowledge may be more vulnerable to sexual abuse. Some sexual offenders avoid children who know the correct names for their genitals because this suggests these children have been educated about body safety and sexuality (Elliot, Browne, & Kilcoyne, 1995). One convicted offender (who had assaulted 75 children by the time he was stopped) reported that when children knew the correct terms for their different body parts, he would leave them alone (Sprengelmeyer & Vaughan, 2000).”
Their study found that most preschoolers know the anatomical terms for all of their body parts except for their genitals. “In Wurtele et al. (1992), although almost all the young children (4 and 5-year-olds) knew the correct terminology for non-genital body parts, very few knew the anatomically correct terms for genitals; only 6% knew penis, 8% knew breast, and 3% knew vagina.” Kenny and Wurtele urge parents and teachers to educate young children about the scientific terms for their genitals, as the information is more likely to stick when it comes from both school and home.
As someone that doesn’t have any children, I’m not exactly an expert on the subject. What terms did you grow up with? What words do your kids use? Which side of the debate are you on?