Q: I enjoyed an article you co-wrote with Vanessa Hamilton, about sex education for Lunch Lady magazine. There is only one thing that I am not sure about. When I was a child, we used euphemisms such as “pee pee” for the genitals. This was not entirely due to sexual shame or prudishness. Small children often shout out random things in public, and last week on the tram I heard a little girl talking loudly about her vulva. This was very embarrassing for the other passengers.
A: Vanessa Hamilton is a sexual health nurse who educates the educators, including parents, on the best way to deliver sex ed to our children. (talkingthetalksexed.com.au). I spoke to her about your concern, and this was her response.
“Experts agree that although it is fine to have ‘family’ or ‘home’ names for private parts, it is essential that children also know the correct names or ‘science’ names for their sexual anatomy. Parents’ fears about all things sexual often prevent them from addressing this most basic of safety and wellbeing education for their children – that of correctly naming sexual body parts.”
She goes on to explain that what might appear to be trendy political correctness is in fact a vital safety skill.
“The benefits of this empowering information for children can not be ignored. It gives them a vocabulary to speak to adults – to ask questions or to ask for help if something is wrong with that part of their body. But most important is the protection from abuse this knowledge can provide. Children can learn who can and cannot touch these parts and under what circumstances. Predators will most often target children who do not know the correct names of their private parts or the body safety rules.”
Hamilton says every child needs to know these rules, which include teaching even very young toddlers and children the following five things:
❑ Their body is their body, and how to say “Stop I don’t like that!” if their body bubble is breached without their consent. This can even include when their parent is tickling them more than they want to be tickled.
❑ Their private parts are parts under their bathing suit, and also include their mouth. So this can include their classmate kissing them on the lips unexpectedly. Their private parts are for them only, unless they need help with care or hygiene and one of their trusted adults is aware. We must not allow our embarrassment to cloud their judgment, or to cause them to doubt their responses. We need to help them,
❑ Identify their early warning signs that tell them they are not safe, such as feeling sick in the tummy or heart beating fast.
❑ Have a safety network by naming five trusted adults on each finger that they can tell if they have a problem.
❑ Explain that no one should ever tell them to keep a bad secret, which is a secret that gives them their early warning signs, Hamilton says. “Happy surprises however are always good because they will always be told, but a secret that they are told to never tell is not OK.”
Hamilton understands how you feel about anatomical names, but she says: “Parents often worry that children will repeat the words at school or say them out loud in public and yes, this may happen, but it is better that they are saying accurate body part names rather than inaccuracies.”
She encourages parents to take advantage of “teachable moments” as they arise. So, the “vulva” incident would be useful for explaining about appropriate times and places.
“Accurate comprehensive sexuality education, such as correct names of body parts, has benefits for children’s whole sexual journey over their lifetime,” Hamilton says. “When they are adolescents they will have better communication skills with partners during intimate experiences. This familiarity with their body will assist them to negotiate needs and desires as well as consent, mutual exploration and pleasurable experiences.”
Words such as “vulva” and “penis” might sound a little shocking when spoken by a young child, but that is the adults’ problem, and we cannot allow our squeamishness to come before their education.
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