Yes, you do need to talk about “the parts”

NS August 31st, 2009

Via Feministe

The following is a PSA released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about how parents should be talking to their children about sex.

In the video,  a father is nervously approaching his daughter for The Talk. He’s obviously dreading it and scared shitless; embarrassed and hesitant. The little girl looks up and her voicover intones: ”Just tell us how you feel. Tell us what you want us to do. Tell us to wait to have sex.”

Ah, yes, good. Wait, WHAT? That’s it? The government’s big, brilliant suggestion for what parents should say to their kids about sex is something as stunningly meaningless and vague like “Tell us [them] to wait?”

I mean, what, exactly, should they be waiting for? Their friends to do it first? Marriage? Junior high to be over?  A half-off sale on Durex featherlite condoms?

To add Stupider to Stupid, the voiceover goes on to say: “We know it’s hard to talk to your kids about sex. It’s embarrassing. You don’t have to be explicit about it. You don’t have to talk about ‘the parts.’”

Oh sweet Jesus, NOT THE PARTS!! Do you mean disgusting things like PENISES and VAGINAS? For all that is good and holy, surely these are not the parts of which you speak! I thought we were telling kids these days that babies were made by rubbing strawberry slushies over Labrador puppies frolicking in sunshine-filled meadows, not this disgusting “Part A (the filthy, out-of-control man-shaft) goes in Box B (the dark and dirty lady cave) to make Human C. Next thing you know, kids will think it’s okay to have sex FOR PLEASURE and Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy will all be sucked into the black vortex of liberal ideology where childhood, religion and family values go to die.

Needless to say, I am not embarrassed about “the parts.” I mean, I don’t go around the house just randomly saying “Penis! Vagina! They’re all beautiful, man! Ebrace your inner goddess!” but I have a real problem with the euphemisms people give genitals to avoid “embarrassment.” Have you actually heard some of the things people call their kids’ bits? For boys the standard seems to be Willy or Pee-Pee or Tackle but there are a multitude of code names for lady caves (see, there’s one right there!) and they include such ridiculousness as Flower (it’s waiting to be pollenated, get it?), Yoni (Sanskrit for ‘the divinity of the womb’ or something), Front Bum/Butt (just plain offensive), Fanny/Fanjo (WTF?), Va-jay-jay (vomit-inducing), Lady Garden (ditto) and the mother of all euphemisms,  Honey Pot (I kid you not).

In the Noble household, we just say ‘bits’ or ‘privates’ until the children are old enough to grasp more complex terminology and then it’s the proper names all the way. I mean, I might not say “Okay, TNC, wash your labia minora now!” but I certainly won’t be all coy and shame-inducing by just waving in her bottom half’s general direction with a wrinkled nose and toss her a washcloth and some Lysol to clean her “flower.” It’s vulva and vagina (and used appropriately — I hate when people refer to the whole female  genital area as ‘vagina’ which is incorrect) and when TNB is around the same age he will learn that his dangly bit is called a penis, not named after a man who wears a top hat and puts children through rigorous moral testing as he leads them through a chocolate factory.

Sure, I will probably be a bit red-faced on at least one occasion by a child calling out “Mummy, that man has a penis!” at the bank or grocery store, but I’d rather take on that brief moment of embarrassment than have my children think that their genitals are something to be afraid or ashamed of. And saying vague things like “Just wait to have sex” won’t be part of our Talk either. Things like the mechanics of sex, birth control options, STDs and the feelings and expectations surrounding sex will be.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work on my Master Plan of Innocence-Robbing. Next on the agenda: telling the kids that the bird the cat drug in is dead as a door nail and isn’t able to fly away, not “asleep” or in “birdie heaven.” Their tears are useful for oiling my Heartless Realist/Atheist machine.

25 Responses to “Yes, you do need to talk about “the parts””

  1. jen says:

    the thing is, if you actually talk about the “bits” with proper names, and discuss sex in proper (if extremely simplified) terms from the time they’re very young, then there IS no big dread or embarrassment (aside from the supermarket shout-out) or panic. like most things around parenting, the bigger a deal you make of it, the bigger a deal it will be. you can still give the “wait until you’re old enough to understand the potential consequences” message as part of that.

    the most damaging bit is not about the cutesy nicknames… it’s about passing on the implied shame and embarrassment to kids (who are naturally born blessedly free of all that).

    of course, my parents were in the medical profession, so we always knew how babies were made – i don’t even remember ever even having a specific discussion about it. it was just one of those things we always knew about. doesn’t mean it was a topic at the dinner table, but the demystification of it all is something that i’m incredibly grateful for, because i never ended up with the hangups so many other of my friends did.

  2. blue milk says:

    Yay for women who teach their children vulvas as well as vaginas!!

  3. Iota says:

    I so agree with you about vaginas. Why do mothers teach their daughters that the outside visible bit is called the vagina?

    I think it’s best for children to grow up always knowing. Then there’s never “the moment” or “the talk”. I can’t see any reason for not being open and honest. I agree with you about this video – I saw it on tv, and thought “how bizarre”.

    I loved the comment of a 6 year old friend of my kids, after their school in Scotland had had a morning on personal safety issues. He said to his mum “well, at least I know what my privates are now, Mummy. I HAD thought they were my brains and my heart”. I guess his mother had always used willy, tadger, John Thomas, wiener, dangly bits…

  4. Trish says:

    Conversation with my daughter, aged 4:

    “Mummy, you know the boys at preschool, well, when they pee it comes out of a thing.”

    “Yes, that’s a penis.”

    “Oh. Girls don’t have a penis, do they?”

    “No, darling, girls have a vagina.”

    [pause... then, in a voice dripping with all the reverence a four year old can muster]

    “Oh, Mummy! That’s a BEAUTIFUL name!”

  5. I laughed my ass off reading this post. Thank you! That is just what I needed on an otherwise dreadful Monday morning.

    I wrote about this topic almost a year ago: http://www.phdinparenting.com/2008/09/18/what-i-will-tell-my-kids-about-sex/

    In thinking about this lately, I have to say that my biggest fear when it does come time is that I might make my kids comfortable enough that they ask me about details of my sex life. Not sure I’ll feel comfortable sharing that, but at the same time I don’t want to shut them out if they have questions. I have a few years yet to figure it out!

  6. Potty Mummy says:

    ‘Tell them to WAIT’? That’s IT? Give. Me. A. Break.

    I have to admit, I’m maybe a bit luckier than some who might be shy of talking about ‘the parts’ as since my husband is dutch, dutch words are what we use to talk about penises. And the boys haven’t yet shown much interest in what I have as an alternative. (Shows how important girls are in a 5 and 3 year old boy’s world view, I suppose…). When they do though I shall (admittedly, probably wincing the first time I say it, I was raised a catholic after all), just use the correct terminology. And then hope they don’t shout it too loudly in the supermarket queue.

  7. Anji says:

    Orion calls penises “willies” because that’s what my parents, his dad, his dad’s family etc call it. I did try to introduce “penis” but it doesn’t seem to be sticking. I’m going to persist. For some reason though I find “willy” fairly inoffensive. I don’t think there’s an equivalent for the vulva though – when I was a kid it was “front bottom” or the hideously vulgar “fanny”. So I tell Orion that boys have willies or penises and girls have vulvas. And I know the plural of vulva is vulvae, but I don’t want to add irregular plural endings to the list of things he’s trying to grasp. ;)

  8. Well done you ! One of my big parenting musts is to avoid the cutsey nicknames for parts – I’m determined that Toddlergirl will be unembarassed by both our parts and her own and able to have a conversation about them that doesn’t confuse or amuse

  9. NS says:

    @jen – Yep, so true. If sex is just a normal part of life, there is no need for the Da-Dum-DUM! sex talk that freaks everyone out.

    @blue milk – We heart vulvae! ;)

    @Iota – Oh, bless his little heart! Glad he knows now what privates really means but I think I like his definition better. :)

    @Trish – LOL! Okay, that is so adorable. Did she name a beloved pet or doll Vagina, then? Hee hee!

    @Annie – Glad I could give you a chuckle. As for referring to your own sex life, I think it’d probably be okay to divulge certain (vague) details if they’re relevant to the conversation and would help them get a better perspective on what is normal but there’s certainly no need to go into the nitty gritty. I think they’d stop you before you could reveal too much anyway!

    @Potty Mummy – Now I’m really curious to know what the Dutch word for penis is but am afraid to Google it. “Dutch penis” seems like it would bring up some unsavoury sites.

    @Anji – I don’t think there’s anything ‘wrong’ per se in the cutesy nicknames as long as they’re not inducing shame or contributing to some kind of undue mystique. This is more common in the names for girls’ parts because boys’ parts are more often given silly or ‘manly’ names but not ones that strip them of their power or ownership. And even if other family members are calling it his ‘willy’ if you say penis he will at least know that that is the proper name and not be confused. Some poor kids have no idea what their genitals are really called until they get to school biology class!

  10. the bad aunt says:

    Just a funny note: My husband had sleep apnea and was going to go through a procedure to correct it. The day before his surgery, I got a metal shaving in my finger at work. The company medic removed it and told me to see him again the next day. I informed him I would be off work due to my husband’s surgery. He then asked me if that was the procedure where the “vulva” is shortened.
    I about died laughing! Excuse me, I think the thing hanging in the back of his throat is called the “uvula”.
    All I could think was “this is the company medic, we are certainly in trouble” and it doesn’t leave a pleasant visual memory either!

  11. nicola says:

    Totally agree. I have always used the proper names – why wouldn’t I? I don’t refer to their wrists or elbows or ear lobes as anything other than their given names. They have shouted penis loudly in supermarkets. And at birthday parties. And in most public situations. Not to embarrass – just because they don’t think twice about using the word and because at some point they are just obsessed with going to the loo/gender differences and just have to talk about it right there and then. Although the check out girl at Target was a little nonplussed to be asked if she had a penis or a ‘ja-gina’ like mummy.

  12. Memories Dad says:

    I totally agree with using the proper names. But I have to admit that we do use two other names as well! And in response to Anji, I think we have a just about acceptable ‘other’ word for vagina. We use ‘Willy’ and ‘Fairy’ which kind of feels like a good equivalent. But don’t worry, they do know the real words as well!

  13. Chloe says:

    @NS and Potty Mummy- My partner is dutch too, and the word penis is the same in dutch only pronounced slightly differently. So now I’m confused.

  14. [...] I love what Noble Savage has to say about a PSA on this topic put out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Read it here: “Yes, you do need to talk about ‘the parts.’” [...]

  15. Courtney says:

    Great post, and very helpful for those of us who want children in the future! Although I am still laughing at the line about Willy Wonka…

  16. Kath says:

    We’re still at the “bits” stage with my 2 year old daughter. My Mum took my her to the toilet recently and told her to wipe her “tail” (she meant bum). My daughter looked solemnly at her and replied “I haven’t got a tail.” Guess we can rely on kids themselves to point out how ridiculous some euphemisms are!

  17. amy says:

    Lady garden lol! Not heard that before! We just say ‘bits’ in our houshold and i always answer their questions honestly ‘why are daddy’s bits diffrerent?’ love those questions. great post xx

  18. A Free Man says:

    I’m with you in theory, but I am pretty squeamish about the whole sexual anatomy thing when it comes to kids. Fortunately, I’ve got boys which is going to be way easier for me to deal with when we get there.

  19. A Free Man says:

    Oh, and this “he will learn that his dangly bit is called a penis, not named after a man who wears a top hat and puts children through rigorous moral testing as he leads them through a chocolate factory” – is fucking writing. Well done.

  20. [...] I wanted a girl. I really did. But from the instant I saw the defining bit of anatomy (penis, the Noble Savage says I have to call it a penis) there was no disappointment. Not a bit of sadness. I’ve come [...]

  21. Trish says:

    NS – I always kind of hoped she’d go and name one of her dolls Vagina. When I tell that story to anyone, I usually round it off with just that prediction, complete with a pretend baby cradled in my arms, “… and she’d say ‘here, look at my beautiful baby, Vagina.’”

  22. Leanna says:

    I have a friend whose mom called her vulva a “peach” when she was growing up. To this day, she has never eaten a peach. And parents think that using the real words is detrimental to a child…

  23. geekymummy says:

    We use “Vulva” here (I think actually a lot of people use the word vagina because they actually think that is the correct term). However we have had confusion with a certain Swedish car brand that could prove embarrassing. And also with the word “valve” as in those rubber things that stop sippy cups from leaking. Just the other day I heard “Mummy, the vulva in my sippy cup is broken”!

    I got into trouble here in the US not realizing that ‘fanny’ is used differently (it means bum/bottom in the US, and vulva in the UK). A co worker told me she had a “sore fanny” after going horseriding and I was quite taken aback by her confiding such intimate information!

    I’ve nothing against the euphemisms though, as long as kids know the real terms too.

  24. I think if you use the real/scientific/medical names for biological parts, it is actually quite boring for kids. It isn’t scandalous or sexual. “Penis” becomes like “chair” and “table.” Big deal. It is the name for the thing. I always treated it that way with my kids and names for parts have never gotten any giggles. It just is. They are mystified that friends make a fuss about it.

    I so wish I had been taught the difference between vulva and vagina growing up. I am ashamed to say that the difference was explained to me by a little girl, the daughter of a friend, when I was in my mid-thirties and already a mother (of boys). No idea how that went right by me – even owning “Our Bodies, Ourselves” from the age of twelve.

    As for that public service announcement, I found it truly shocking. My jaw dropped with the sheer stupidity of it.

  25. Everyone but me is still nervous about saying “penis” to my almost 2 year old, and I really can’t wrap my head around it. At bath time I say, “Now we’re getting your arms bubbly, your elbows, your hands, your bottom, your penis, your testicles, your strong baby legs, your knees…” and so on. I can hear everyone else sort of hold their breath when I say “penis and testicles,” but they’re just body parts. Seriously. I don’t want my kids whispering the words for their genitals as they grow up because of embarrassment. It’s pointless.

    As a side note, my mother tried to calling his penis a “peepee” and I stomped that one out immediately. “Peepee” creeps me out to no end.