Generally speaking, girls have vaginas. Boys have penises. I did not think this was a groundbreaking thing to teach a 4-year-old (even at 2), but it is according to her teacher, who informed me my kid was telling other kids that babies come out of vaginas. First, I was so proud. Then I realized she was asking me to make her stop.
OK full disclosure: I'm a first-time parent, aka a rookie, an asshole, whatever you call it when someone does a thing everyone else has been doing for thousands of years and yet talks about it like the only person it ever happened to. If this is the worst ideological issue I've faced as a parent so far — and it probably is — then maybe I am lucky and you are free to mock me for my precious feelings directly in the comments (I know you were going to even if I didn't ask — that's our deal).
That said, HOLY SHIT WHY IS NOT OK TO SAY BABIES COME OUT OF VAGINAS? To be clear, I haven't told her how the baby is made via a penis and vagina, or artificial insemination, or by reading The Secret. And to be extra clear, I could've also told her that babies also come out of stomachs sometimes, too, and via adoption, but we just haven't gotten that complex about it. Apparently she simply said at school that babies come out of vaginas, and was told to only speak of this with mommy or daddy. And she got upset, because she now believed she was in trouble.
But to oblivious me, the question where do babies come from, which my daughter has been curious about for a while, seemed easy enough to answer, and important enough to answer accurately at this age: Babies are typically born from vaginas.
I try to discuss this like it is no big deal and how things work, because:
A.) It is no big deal and
B.) That is how things work
C.) She is a girl, subject to a ludicrous degree of shame about her specific parts. I want her to be comfortable with her body as often as she is curious, and as appropriate as is warranted based on her development. It should not ever be regarded as shocking or bad.
D.) This is not a new idea, or even a "me" idea, it's a researched and thoroughly supported idea by experts.
For instance, a fairly standard piece of advice on how to tell kids where babies come from over at Ask Dr. Sears instructs that you make sure you know what they are really asking (as in, make sure they don't really mean "Where was I born?") and then give it to them straight, but age-appropriate. Sears explains:
Using our book or another that you like, play show and tell. Tell your daughter that her sibling-to-be is growing in your womb (not your "tummy") and that when the time is right, the baby will squeeze through the birth canal, called the vagina. It's extremely important to use accurate terms. Starting at this early age, you want your child to learn that she can depend on you to be a trustworthy and easily approachable source of information, especially on sensitive issues. You're laying the groundwork for the more in-depth and challenging sexuality talks that will come when she's a teen.
If you're feeling embarrassed, try not to show it, as even a 5-year-old can detect discomfort. You want your body language to be relaxed, therein conveying that sexuality is a healthy part of life and nothing to be ashamed of. Since your daughter trusts you enough to have asked her first question—"Where does the baby come out?"—she's likely to want more information, such as how the baby was created. Be prepared to answer her in a matter-of-fact way. It's best, however, not to go into more detail until she gives you clues that she wants it.
(Nowhere does it say to immediately forbid them from telling their peers.) Then, from a piece in the Atlantic by Catherine Buni, we learn about Kate Rohdenburg, a sexual violence prevention educator, who comes at it from another angle:
As part of the growing movement to implement abuse prevention in schools and other youth-serving organizations, Rohdenburg and other educators believe that teaching what linguists call "standard" dialect for body parts — rather than euphemisms and colloquialisms — is important. Teaching children anatomically correct terms, age-appropriately, says Laura Palumbo, a prevention specialist with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), promotes positive body image, self confidence, and parent-child communication; discourages perpetrators; and, in the event of abuse, helps children and adults navigate the disclosure and forensic interview process.
And 4 years old is a terrific age to do this, because kids under 12 are considered most vulnerable to sexual abuse at age 4.
And as Tara Culp-Ressler over at ThinkProgress points out, accurate naming could also be a huge positive step in diminishing rape culture:
Perhaps most importantly, teaching kids to use the accurate words for their body parts teaches them that they have ownership over their body, provides a positive boost to their self-image, and increases their confidence. That could have radical implications for our current society's pervasive rape culture, which advances the false perception that sexual assault is merely a consequence of promiscuity rather than a serious crime. If youth grow up with a deeper understanding of bodily autonomy and consent, they will be more likely to speak up when they feel that consent has been violated — and perhaps less likely to violate someone else's consent.
To me, this is win-win-win. This is a critical tool in helping prevent sexual abuse and an essential part of being well adjusted that discourages shame. You don't call your elbow your bo-bo, and you don't need to call your vagina your hoo-ha. If a vagina is a vagina, then babies coming out of a vagina is a natural next question, not a box you can put a lid on. And I would think most other people would agree, right? But no, writes Buni:
Two weeks after Rohdenburg gave her lesson in March, as required by a new state law, a biology teacher at a public high school in Idaho said "vagina" in one of his classes. Several parents filed complaints against the teacher, Tim McDaniel, and now he is under investigation. Last June, Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown was banned from Lansing's state house floor after she said "vagina." One sexual-abuse prevention trainer in New England tells the story of a mother who discovered her first-grader had learned the word "penis" in school. The mother pulled her daughter from class. "You've destroyed her innocence!" she shouted at the school's counselor.
And obviously, this is what it's really about. The teacher at my daughter's school, who I think is terrific, was just doing what she had to do to avoid the ire of other parents and/or her employers. It makes sense. It is still disheartening as fuck.
Seriously: Vagina is the Santa Claus of kid intel? Once the vagina is out of the box, hearts will be broken and childhoods destroyed? I know parents who prefer to use cutesy euphemisms for private parts and they are squeamish about teaching their kids accurate words at a young age. It feels weird or wrong or too soon or too specific. But I could not disagree more. Later on when my daughter is older she can call her vagina Puff the Magic Dragon for all I care. But for now: Vagina. I'm not going to make my kid not say vagina, and it seems weirdly restrictive to then tell her to never mention it to others.
But in the spirit of broadmindedness, I looked for arguments against my own position.
I found only one:
Sure, I can tell my kid not to talk about it at school (or in elevators). But now I'm left with how to address that: Do I tell her that some people are weird about talking honestly about your body, and it's sad, and a shame, especially when it's at your school, a place that is supposed to want to teach you all the things and encourage you know, learning, because there is nothing weird about where babies come from, but we have to follow this silly rule? What if someone else at school says babies come from rainbows? Now she will feel that she'll get in trouble if she says, no they don't, they come from vaginas? Ludicrous and shameful.
Ironically, she can learn all day long at school already about Saturn and Venus and distant planets that for all intents and purposes will never be real to her — unless she studies astronomy or overcrowding leads to colonizing new planets and one day she does in fact deliver a baby out of her vagina on Saturn. We put a premium on teaching kids as soon as possible about self care with their bodies and teeth and what they eat, and how their hearts and lungs work, but not their private parts?
And for the record: WHAT is the imagined corruption that takes place by empowering your child with accurate words? Walk me through it, naysayer. Then what? Five year olds will have sex? Religion breaks down? The family unit is destroyed? Heroin? (And by the way, kids at this age still play with themselves without ever knowing the correct term for what they are exploring.)
I just don't understand the fear. And I don't understand the shame. And worse, by trying to equip her properly for the world, I did not equip her properly for the world at all — the one that is squeamish about kids learning how their bodies work. What bums me out the most is that i n this moment, in this microcosm, she has learned body shame in what was an otherwise trusted place — I cannot take back the sense that this type of discussion is something she'll get in trouble for. And that is precisely what Rohdenburg notes in the Atlantic piece:
Here lies the heart of the matter, when it comes to sex-abuse prevention: Educators like Rohdenburg want children to understand that their "private parts" are just that—private and off limits to others. But they also want students to be comfortable talking about these body parts, and with the words that describe them. "We don't want kids to think they're going to get in trouble by asking questions about sexual matters and health," Palumbo says. When officials pull a teacher into an investigation or escort a legislator from her state house floor for using the word "vagina," or a parent removes a child from a class that uses the word "penis," children are more likely to think their questions will get them in trouble, she says. This shuts down communication, reinforcing the culture of secrets and silence perpetrators rely on for cover.
But the only thing shameful here is keeping kids in the dark about their bodies because of our own weird hangups.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.