Saturday, May 18, 2013

Puberty, period, abuse, sex, vagina, penis. These are real words. Please use them.

It's inevitable: one day, your child comes home and has a question for you. Perhaps they want to know where babies come from; maybe a girl had "cramps" at school and your son wants to know why it's such a big deal. Maybe your daughter tells you that she was on the computer at school and a picture of a naked person popped up on her screen.

The time will come that you have to answer questions and address topics that most of us just prefer to avoid. It's not that we don't want to educate our children, it's just that we don't know when or how to address certain things.

One of my roommates in college told me of her mother's philosophy and it's the best one I've heard:

If they're old enough to ask, they're old enough to know.

"Wait a minute. When I was that young, I didn't need to know things like ______." Yeah, when you were that young. Times change. Children are being exposed to things at younger ages these days and, like it or not, earlier explanation will be necessary.

There will also be times that they don't ask, but you know that it might be a good idea to talk about some things. Please talk. Don't hold back on what you know is important. you want your child to know how to react to the unknown.

Before they start school, some things to talk about might be:
  1. Strangers (but make sure they know the difference between a complete stranger and their school teacher).
  2. Making sure they understand that everyone's different (intellect, race, religion), and that's okay.
  3. Recognizing the basic signs of physical, verbal, and mental harassment and abuse. In school, this is known as "bullying". 
As they get older and life starts to happen, other questions and topics will need to be covered.
  1. Puberty will happen. Some youth take it very well while others have a hard time adjusting. Will they learn about it from a stranger during a maturation program at school, or will they be bored during that program because you've already explained it?
  2. Peer pressure from friends becomes stronger, especially as the pressure to have friends increases. This may come in the form of drugs/alcohol, sex, sneaking out at night, etc. How are you going to teach them to handle it when (not if) it happens? Chances are you're not going to be there when the pressure's on. 


The rule is basic: Answer only the question that was asked. If your 2nd grader asks "What's puberty?" you could say "It's when your body starts to look more like an adult." Just because your elementary school-aged child asks about something like that doesn't mean you have to pull out an anatomy book to clarify. That time will come soon enough. There's no need to rush it.  :)

Even though the rule is the same when it comes to sex and private parts, those things are among the hardest topics for parents to address. Why is that?

It's because, no matter how mature we think we are, most of us adults still have a hard time saying words like penis and vagina. These are the real names for those parts of the body, yet we treat them as forbidden and feel awkward if someone says them. Many of us still mentally start doing that embarrassed little kid laugh (heehee she just said "penis!"). When I took a Sex and Gender class as part of my major requirements in college, our professor told us this:
"We will be using words like penis, vagina, and sex very regularly in this class. If you still snicker or laugh when these words are said or feel embarrassed when you say them, it would be best for you to drop this class; take it again when you can talk about body parts like an adult."
Us adults complicate things way too much. We forget how things are from a child's perspective. When a child wonders about a private part, they aren't asking about it in the same sense that an adult would. To them, they might as well be asking about the number of toes on their feet. Developmental Psychologist Susanne A. Denham clarifies:
How should you respond? Be direct, and stay matter-of-fact. Follow the rule of thumb: "Is this how I would tell [them] about elbows or knees?" Give [them] the anatomically correct name for the body part (vagina, penis) and avoid baby talk [using nicknames or other, non-anatomically correct names] . . . If you don't act embarrassed, [they] won't be, either.
In addition, you can let them know that these particular body parts are also called "private parts" because we don't casually talk about or touch them in public (as opposed to while taking a shower).

So, why is it not a good idea to tell your son that his penis is a wee wee or a pee pee? Why should you not tell your daughter that her vagina is a flower or that her developing breasts are called boobs? They're just cute words for it. What's the problem? Learning the proper names for things automatically creates respect and lack of embarrassment/shame around the topic. If they learn funny/silly names for things, it makes the thing itself funny/silly to talk about. Funny things are usually discussed more casually than others, are made fun of more, and are more easily exploited. Did you know that
  1. Knowing and using the proper terms for private parts can protect children from abuse and creates an atmosphere wherein perpetrators can be more easily caught. 
    1. Many arrests for abuse/molestation have been delayed simply because the child could not correctly identify the body part that had been violated. For example, one child who had been sexually abused told the police that it was his "pocketbook" (place where "important" things are stored) that had been messed with. His parents had not raised him to use the correct name for his penis.
  2. When your son touches his penis, do you smile really big and say "You found your pee pee!" Do you excitedly tell your daughter that she found her flower?  Do your children smile and laugh with you when you say it? Guess what? Molesters know that, and they use words like that when violating children because they know it will make the children smile and laugh. That makes it easier for them to do what they want.
Try this for a month: any time you would use the word "boobs", say "breasts" instead. You'll very quickly notice a change in how much you want to just casually bring them up and make references to them, as well as how you feel about them. Calling a woman's chest "boobs/boobies" instantly makes them something casual, which is exactly what they should not be. If it feels weird to use the correct word, think about what my Sex and Gender professor told us; maybe it's time to grow up when it comes to this topic.

    Children need to know what's up. By telling the plain and simple truth and using the correct words, you will give your child more knowledge and protection than if you do otherwise. 

    Questions for thought and discussion
    What are some topics you wish you could explain better to kids?
    What do you wish more parents would teach their children?
    What kinds of questions (serious, confusing, funny, etc.) have your children asked that threw you off guard?

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