Why We Taught our Toddler to Say Vagina

The 60th session of the United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women is currently taking place in NYC (March 14-24). One of the session’s primary themes is the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls. A recent related article on NPR got me thinking about a common parenting conundrum–and wondering why it’s a conundrum in the first place.

I believe that, as the parent of a privileged white male, I am hugely responsible for equipping my son to make smart and respectful decisions about interacting with women. For teaching him to use his Pee-Pee, his Wang, his Willy, his Mr. Noodle, his Rod of Masculinity for good and not evil. Which leads us to the first and lowest-hanging fruit on my decision tree…

(1) That’s what it’s called. I don’t (regularly) call my head my “noggin,” or my fingers my “digits,” or my legs my “stems,” and neither does my kid. Why shouldn’t my two-year-old call his penis a penis, and my vagina a vagina?  (Note: yes, technically he’s probably referring to my vulva, but we haven’t distinguished the testicles yet, either. We’ll get there. He’s usually moved on to unraveling the toilet paper by that point, anyway.)

(2) It’s not hard to pronounce. Sure, Simon went through a (fantastic) phase where he called it my “giant,” but for the most part it hasn’t been any more difficult for him to say “penis” or “vagina” than some other alliterative euphemism.  He can also say Diplodocus, Archaeopteryx, and banana-fanna-fo-Fimon, so we really have no excuse. (This dinosaur book was written to make parents feel dumb, by the way.)

(3) It’s what his doctor says. We’ve told Simon (I’ll refrain from saying “taught” because I think such a complicated concept is still sinking in for him) that he can allow certain people (parents, doctor, trusted caregivers) to touch his penis if they’re helping to keep it “safe, clean, and healthy.” When he’s being examined by his pediatrician, we want him to know what’s going on and why the doctor would want to look at and refer to his penis in the first place.

(4) Is it really that embarrassing? I think that some parents worry that they’ll be THAT person in Trader Joe’s–the one with the child helping herself to four “samples” of White Cheddar Corn Puffs while screaming, “MY VAGINA ITCHES!” It could happen. I used to whine that, “My perereca* hurrrrrts!” as I loped around the pyramids on a donkey during our years in Cairo. I think my parents were more embarrassed that I couldn’t hack Western riding…on a donkey.

(5) It avoids shame. Framing candid talk about the most private parts of our body as taboo cloaks it in shame and could complicate honest discussions down the road. If we can’t talk openly with our son about his penis or my vagina, how is he ever going to feel comfortable enough asking us questions about dating, sex, or putting on a condom?   

(6) It could help prevent your worst nightmare. I read a variation of this article about preventing sexual abuse years ago, and it sold me immediately on the importance of talking to our children openly about their bodies. Some parents dismiss signs or unintentionally veiled confirmation of sexual abuse because their child complains that her “tummy” hurts–because she isn’t anatomically aware enough to distinguish the locale of the pain she is feeling. I think it’s a no-brainer to empower your child to communicate you without the potential for hugely repercussive confusion.

So there you have it.  I’ll let Simon’s middle school (who am I kidding–third grade?) buddies and Austin Powers school him on the 373 other names for his Dr. Johnson.


*Family lore has it that this is the word that I used.  It took about 32 years and a quick Google to better understand the nuances of this Portuguese term.  Um, interesting choice, Mom and Dad–surely not one I learned on our Brazilian apartment playground?

Illustration by Tara Jacoby of Jezebel.

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  • Reply Ruth Cusick

    Katie, thank you for this post and thank you for helping spread the message that sex education starts at birth! My queer feminist retired ob-gyn mother read a “where babies come from” book to us as infants, so we knew about reproduction from an early age (I’ll have to ask her the name of the book and send it to you).
    One of my mom’s favorite embarrassing stories about me is that I always wanted to touch my little brother’s penis in the bath (he’s 2.5 years younger than me) and she taught us early his penis was HIS. I had to ask permission and his little pre-verbal self would grunt “nu-uh” and shake his head no. Early lessons in consent and our bodies belonging to us.
    Raising children to think that their own bodies and sex are some quiet thing to not speak about or call some pet name doesn’t help anyone!

    March 17, 2016 at 10:55 am
    • Reply Katie Brown

      Ruth, I love this story, and I totally thought of you when I was writing this (wondering how your mom approached the issue with you)! Our culture doesn’t make this an easy topic to address, which I find disappointing and dangerous. Thanks for sharing. <3

      March 17, 2016 at 12:59 pm
  • Reply Abbi Coursolle

    We realized when our daughter was about 2.5 that–living as she does in a penis-free household (save our cat)–she had absolutely no idea that some people didn’t have vulvas (the general word we use here). She knew all about tampons and maxi pads and just figured all adults got their period every month. While we didn’t want to reify gender and sexual stereotypes, we did have to go back and cover some additional anatomy stuff in our body talk. Now, her preschool has a shared bathroom, so she sees penises occasionally and isn’t freaked out. But we had this moment where we realized that without rapid course correction, we were setting our kid up for some serious surprises and misunderstandings!

    March 18, 2016 at 2:51 am
    • Reply Katie Brown

      Thanks so much for sharing, Abbi! Did you and AJ ever use a book of any kind? I read mixed reviews on the resources out there, so I’m always curious to hear what other parents choose (if they choose to augment those course-correcting conversations with “literature,” that is!). 🙂

      March 18, 2016 at 10:27 am

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