Monday, May 31, 2010

Let's Get Clinical...Or Not

(Note: Apologies to my small but loyal following for whom I didn't do an April post. Life got in the way. Second, the information written below may be offensive to some. If so, too bad. You shouldn't have had kids.)

True story #1: We’re on the way to ballet a couple of weeks ago, with a friend’s daughter, who I’ll refer to as Cate. As yet, Cate doesn’t have any brothers. One of my boys (being a boy) made a ‘willy’ joke – since in the Shaw household, we’re well and truly mired in the era of ‘It ain’t funny unless it’s toilet humour.’ Then Cate asked, ‘What’s a willy?’

Before I could complete my simple-yet-effective answer of ‘It’s how boys do pee,’ Eva launched into ‘Well, it’s got these two sorta BALL things underneath, with a big long TUBE on top and that’s got a HOLE on the end and – OH! THAT’S where the wee comes out!’ (So full of information are five year olds.) Obviously my description was severely lacking. After registering this information for a second, Cate says, ‘Oh! You mean a doodle!’ Luckily, I was driving and no one cared about my muffled laughter.

Now every parenting book or article I’ve read advises against this – using slang terms to refer to private parts. Among the slurry of advice we’re given, we as parents (more pressure) are encouraged to use the proper names for body parts from Day One.

Recently I stumbled upon a parenting magazine with a glibly titled article called ‘Private Schooling’ which discussed the importance of using ‘proper’ names to refer to these certain body parts. (I should mention that this article was alongside ‘Life After Purees!’ – which is to say that it is obviously geared to new, first-time mums who logically have high, unrealistic expectations, and who are still swearing they will do everything by the book, will never let the kids eat in the car or watch t.v. until they’re five. Ha.)

I understand the main argument behind this is that it’s a way of keeping children safe. However, if your child came to you and – God forbid – said so-and-so tried to touch his willy, I think you’d get the picture. So would a court of law. (She mentions these legal ramifications in part of her article: but, really, if it’s gotten to that point, don’t you have bigger worries than making sure your child uses the correct anatomical names for a jury?) By this extension, does this mean that we need to have one universal word for underwear (as opposed to knickers, undies, pants, panties, jocks) in order to keep our children ‘safer’?

Let’s dissect the rest of this advice, shall we? As the article begins, the writer says, ‘An arm is an arm and a leg is a leg, just as a penis is a penis.’ But don’t we often use words such as tummy for stomach and pointy for the index finger, doggy for dog, and the like? Yet that’s not seen as misleading or confusing. She goes on: ‘For boys, use the word “penis” initially and then add “scrotum” and “testicles” as they discover these parts.’ At 37, I feel I can admit to you all that I don’t think I’ve once used these words in an appropriate context. Ever. Nor have I ever heard a man (unless they’re a doctor) refer to said parts by these words either. Usually, when the latter are being mentioned, it’s in the heat of the moment as in ‘OWWWWWWWWWWWWWW! That hockey puck just hit me straight in the balls!!!’

For girls, the advice is even better: ‘“Vulva” is the correct term for the vaginal area [as] the vagina is located internally.’ Do they need to know that there is an internal area at age three? I understand the safety issue, but…well, see my above example. If so, then when do we introduce the clitoris and its primary function? (And while we’re on that subject, is it CLIT-oris or cli-TOR-is? No matter which way I say it, it sounds wrong. Perhaps that is a toe-MAY-to, toe-MAH-to argument.) All I could think of when this vulva bit was mentioned is the Seinfeld in which Jerry dates the girl whose name he forgets, but knows that her name rhymes with a female body part. ‘Mulva? Movary?’ George asks. Mitoris? Sounds like a Greek goddess. And what about the lowly bum? Is that to become buttocks? Glutes? Anus? Sphincter? More confusion.

I must again apply this same ‘principle’ to the fluids that come out of those said holes. Encrusted mucus to replace snot and boogie, or my personal favourite hybrid, snoog? Flatulence? Another word I’ve never used in its appropriate context. Does ‘Oh no Johnny! You’ve just peed on my handbag!’ now have to become ‘Oh no Johnny! You’ve just urinated on my handbag!’ What about cooing to your infant, ‘Did someone make some faeces in their nappy?!’ And the classic potty training books ‘Everybody Poops’ and ‘Once Upon a Potty’– should they be renamed ‘Everybody’s Anus Excretes’ and ‘Once Upon a Toilet’? Sorry, buy they just can’t muster the same bang.

True story #2: Another friend has the smartest child I have ever encountered. (Knew colours at 18 months, for a start, without any coaching.) One day I said to her, ‘Oh, hello Lilly,’ to which she replied ‘I have a vagina.’ ‘Yes, you do, you’re a girl,’ I said. It was funny and we all laughed and the discussion was over. But it came from Lilly, who clearly is the type of kid for whom the answer ‘It’s a hoo-hoo’ just wouldn’t suffice. Some kids are ready for that information at age two. But I don’t think most are. I have to admit that often when I hear a two-year old using clinical words, I cringe. I find it almost disconcerting, for lack of a better word.

And once again, I’m left unconvinced by the ‘expert’ advice as to the actual advantage of inflicting adult vocabulary into their worlds from the start. We complain about them growing up too fast. Why can’t we let their childhood extend into their terminology, even if it’s just for a little while? Let our kids be kids.

When more questions start, I’m prepared to answer. But for now, I’m sticking with what works. And it ain’t va-jay-jay…Oh, there I go again…


  1. Why is there a comment in Chinese, Kelly? Do you speak Chinese?

    But to the subject, I think that in spite of Seinfeld, it's CLIT-oris (The American Heritage Dictionary lists it as preferred). Female "circumcision" is all about controlling female sexuality and also about denying women sexual pleasure, so in all seriousness I think that at puberty girls ought to get some real empowering information about it. Freud called it something like "that puny organ" (that isn't it but I can't think of the exact phrase), and he thought it to be the reason for "penis envy." As a straight woman, I don't believe this exists. But that's just me.

    At any rate, I think nomenlature is less important than fostering healthy attitudes about sexuality. I agree that clinical names don't have the same "bang" (speaking of Freud and his slips) and are in fact somewhat offensive to the degree that they attempt to strip (my Freudian slip)the genitalia of their powerful subtext and complexity--that is, there are no neutral words that can truly describe it, whatever those soul-less sceintists and child development experts say.

    But this is a fascinating subject and I thoroughly enjoyed your clever meditation on it.


  2. that Chinese crap is so annoying - I don't know why it happens. It's trying to direct traffic to their website...But anyway, thanks for you lovely, insightful comments - and your support...xx

  3. I didn't see the "pod" mentioned once!

  4. couldn't agree with you more, i'll just say everything you wrote I was nodding my head in constant agreement with you,

    language shouldn't be so strictly prescriptive, where is the creativity in using language in this way and aren't we also responsible for teaching our children to have imaginations as well be able to reel off particular scientifically correct body parts in quick succession

    I am so sick of manuals telling how and what to do with your children and when exactly to praise them and discipline them and exactly what to say and do in all parenting scenarios and I'm a first time mum! I've already had a gutful of it

    your posts are making a lot sense to me, amen

  5. Couldn't agree with you more....being the Mother of 5 & 7 year old boys!!....but you never mentioned the boobies....a subject they are also obsessed with!!! My 7 year old told me last week that he'd like to know what teenage boobies looked like....of course I said "just like mine"....let him figure that one out himself....actually, I think he already had if figured out given that he asked the question!!!!

  6. Loved the post, I very much missed the April edition.

    Boobies are fun for little girls too apparently.

    My daughter Violet and her friend Tilly (both 3) recently had a great time in Best and Less...while I was lining up to pay, their screams of delight were audible for anyone within a 2 km radius..."Boobies Boobies Boobies" they laughed as they ran through the bra section groping every cup on display.

  7. I think as long as you (at some point you deem appropriate) teach them the correct words, then really, where's the drama?

    Funny, Ellen, my cousin, who is the mother of three now-grown boys, said she got so fed up of the body (and toilet) talk at the dinner table, she said 'No More!' and her then youngest, who was four, said, 'Oh, great, now what are we going to talk about...'