Passionate About Providence
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Not “Private Parts”: Why It’s Important to Use Anatomically Correct Language

private parts anatomically correct language Providence Moms Blog

Private parts. When even using the accurate terms for them is uncomfortable, what are we supposed to do as parents? I’m sure we’ve all read articles and seen studies, and I’m also sure that the vast majority of us do our best in balancing our discomfort with a two-year-old saying “anus” against having our high school graduates still saying “cupcake” or “wee wee.” The bottom line is that it’s something we know we have to deal with but we aren’t given the tools to do so properly.

This week my son apparently announced at school that he touched another student’s bare private parts. He was overheard by older students, who did the right thing and told a teacher. When confronted, my son readily admitted that he both said this and touched the other child. However, when questioned further, he said that he touched her belly. Their cubbies are near one another, and as she was taking off a sweatshirt, her undershirt lifted up also. He saw her bare belly, and he reached out to playfully tap it. 

When he revealed he had only touched her belly, I’m sure everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. Hear me loud and clear when I say that I am beyond thrilled that my son did not touch anyone’s vagina. Or penis. Or anus. (And yes, it made me uncomfortable to type those words.) But also hear me loud and clear when I say that I fully understand that it’s not okay that he touched someone without her consent, playful or not. I get it. I really do. My mama bear instinct is to leap to his defense and argue that he was confronted with a bare body part where he wasn’t expecting one, and so he reacted impulsively. I also want to issue a reminder that he has impulse control issues. However, when I take that logic and those excuses further, I know that at some point he’ll be confronted with a bare breast or a naked penis when he isn’t expecting it, and he can’t reach out and playfully touch either one. So I get it. But also…he’s 7.

I talked to him about the entire incident as the school asked me to do, and he explained his thoughts about “private parts” to me. Because his sister doesn’t go shirtless in the summer and because all of her PJs have tops, he thought a girl’s belly was private, but a boy’s wasn’t. Doesn’t that make perfect sense when you’re 7? When I told him that “private parts” means “penis,” “vagina,” and “anus,” he was horrified and said, “I would never touch someone there!” We talked about why what he said was concerning to so many people, and he fully understood it. So all in all, it was a solid teachable moment and I was relieved not to be living my own episode of Law & Order: SVU.

But. 

I have since received correspondence that states that his language was inappropriate for school and that it is never okay to touch another student. I have to break it down into two parts because both are so troubling to me.

With respect to his words, by all accounts my son said, “I touched X’s bare private parts,” and did so matter-of-factly (not gloating or teasing). First of all, he thought he was telling the truth–he believed he had touched a private part. Secondly, I refuse to teach my son that “penis” or “vagina” or “anus” is a word that is not appropriate in an academic setting, so I am certainly not going to teach him that a milquetoast collective term like “private parts” is not okay. Third, if we teach our children that they can’t say these words or the catchall words that encompass them, what are we going to do if one of them is molested or assaulted? All of the research answers this question clearly: we must give children the words and comfort with them so that, heaven forbid, if they need to report something, it is that much easier. Bottom line: I’m having an impossible time supporting the school’s position that his words were inappropriate.

Next, (and this is the piece that I am most upset by), I am really struggling to understand how my son is supposed to figure out the complicated issue of touch. It’s simply a lie that “it’s never okay to touch another student.” At his school, and I’m sure just about every other school on the planet, children hug and high-five as a normal course. They hold hands and regularly play games that require touch. I’m not suggesting that what he did was okay, although I certainly don’t think it’s that big of a deal. But I do think it’s really hard for children to sort this out, and I also believe that some students struggle to master social cues. I wouldn’t necessarily peg my son as a “struggler” in this area, but he’s not perfect, either. Sometimes we luck into the right answer or the right behavior on the first try, and sometimes we have to make a mistake to learn what the wrong choice was. Isn’t a huge part of school supposed to be learning this precise thing?

All I can do from here is reassure my son that he’s a good kid who makes bad choices sometimes like we all do. And while I’m trying to teach him the complex boundaries around acceptable and unacceptable touch, we’ll be over here practicing our comfort with the names of body parts. I don’t pretend to have all–or even many–of the answers, but that is one thing I am very clear on.

 

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