Pediatrician Perri Klass views this presidential election as a “teachable moment” for parents, teachers, and pediatricians in educating children about proper terms for one’s genitals:
Mind you, the words that young children use for their nether regions are a daily concern in a pediatric office, where we examine children’s bodies. We try to connect with them in language that they understand, but also, often, find ourselves providing the correct names for body parts, sometimes even as we try to figure out exactly what is itchy, or exactly where it hurts.
And sometimes a child is embarrassed that the physical exam extends to the genitals, but it’s usually helpful to explain, in tandem with the parent, that yes, these parts of your body are private, but we need to make sure they’re healthy, so it’s O.K. for the doctor to check them. And in doing so, usually the doctor will name them.
Dr. Klass points to research showing that children are capable of learning about their anatomic parts at a very early age:
Ideally, parents should start teaching those terms even before their children can talk, naming the genitals just as they name other body parts in the inevitable daily round of small-child body care and grooming and, yes, diapering and potty time…
When children are old enough to talk, looking at picture books together is a good way to discuss these issues — the nomenclature, the privacy, the different kinds of bodies.
Knowing the correct terminology for private body parts can help protect children from sexual abuse, says Dr. Klass, and empowers them with the ability to accurately describe inappropriate touching if it occurs:
But while those safety issues can loom large for worried parents, she said, the most important reason to teach children the right words for body parts — their own and those of others — is more positive and more profound. “It helps children develop a healthy, more positive body image, instead of using nicknames that their genitals are something shameful or bad,” she said. “It also gives children the correct language for understanding their bodies and asking questions about sexual development.”
And that is why I try to model using those anatomical terms in the pediatric office; I want children to understand that they can ask questions about those body parts and get them answered; that we’ll treat those conversations in a medical and matter-of-fact way, and that while there are special rules about privacy, there are no body parts that are dirty or nasty or not to be discussed.
It’s been very hard to shield children from the really rough language we’ve all been listening to from the campaign trail for the past year and a half. Our children have also been listening to language that has essentially been uninspiring and negative, fact-free and dishonest, sexual and demeaning, and bullying and violent. This has hopefully been a teachable moment for all of us. We’ll all find out tomorrow what we’ve learned.