It all started with a wrestling match. Being a mother of two boys we play a little rough sometimes, and on this particular occasion, my son accidentally kneed me between the legs. I took a pause in the play to breathe, and he said to me, “sorry I kneed you in your penis, Mom.” I thought about correcting him, telling him I don’t have a penis, but the question that I knew would follow wasn’t one I was ready to answer.
Is penis easier to say than vagina? Ahh, the label question. What do we teach our children to call genitalia? I used to think this was an easy question with a clear answer: penis and vagina. I had no problem teaching my sons the term penis. However, when at the age of three my son asked what the female genitals were called, I was horror-struck and couldn’t get the word vagina to come out of my mouth, and instead, I responded “lady parts.”
I was instantly confused by my response, and I was ashamed of what I perceived as a parenting blunder. I sprang into action asking a number of parents what names they taught their child for genitals. Much to my surprise, I got answers including front bum, private part, va-jay-jay, pee-pee. Sometimes people said penis, but never vagina.
I realize that the technical term that encompasses all the parts that make up the female genitalia is vulva, however, that word is seldom used. The vagina is actually an interior tube leading to the exterior of the body. But of all the parts that make up the female genitalia—vagina, labia majora, labia minora, clitoris—vagina is the accepted euphemism that gets all the glory.
I took time to think it over. The next time my son asked, I paused and took a deep breath before responding “vagina.” Of course he had to repeat it, and it seemed like such a big word to come out of such a young mouth, but the feeling of a parenting blunder was gone and I felt happy that he was armed with the correct knowledge. I felt that my own discomfort with the word, regardless of where it came from, shouldn’t become his.
As a parent I want my children to have confidence and comfort with their bodies because I believe it has far-reaching effects in life. If we aren’t comfortable and confident in all manner of self, how can we be comfortable and confident elsewhere?
I have heard it said, “If they are old enough to ask, then they are old enough to know the answer.” I also think, in this particular case, that it will only be a matter of time before schoolyard slang fills his ears. Hopefully, the questions that stem from that schoolyard slang will be easier to answer with a solid base of body terms in place.
We have had moments stem from this knowledge that made us slap our palms to our foreheads in an ‘oh dear’ fashion. It reminds me of the movie Kindergarten Cop when the little boy in the kindergarten classroom stands up in a very matter-of-fact manner and announces, “Boys have a penis, and girls have a vagina.” I assure you that we have had our fair share Kindergarten Cop moments.
Recently, on a family road trip, my husband and I were discussing Regina, Saskatchewan when my oldest son broke into song, “vagina, vagina, vagina” thinking that we had said Vagina, Saskatchewan.
We also went through a period where my son felt he had to announce who in the room had a penis and who had a vagina. This required several explanations, and reminders about private knowledge, and appropriate public conversations.
Regardless, after I surpassed my own initial reservations about the use of the word vagina it has been a great parenting decision. Teaching my boys all the proper names for the body has helped to create a relationship where they feel comfortable to talk freely and ask questions. I will admit that sometimes I wish they would direct the questions to their father, but I feel relieved and happy that they are comfortable enough to talk to either of us. We try to make sure they understand about the private aspects, but avoid making the body shameful or embarrassing.
For any parents who might be struggling with the same issues around the word vagina, or any of the body part names for that matter, it gets easier. I found after that initial use of the word vagina it just became another word, and we can say it, and hear it now as easily as the word penis. Remember, it’s called a vagina.
Shari Marshall is wife, a mother, and a career woman with a passion for literature and creative writing. Read more at her blog at writingiscommunication.wordpress.com.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2016.