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Have you ever thought about why we call certain body parts ‘private parts’ instead of their proper names? Or why we use names like ‘pecker,’ ‘willy’ or ‘your bits?’
‘Private parts’ is a phrase used with the best intentions. It’s meant to communicate to children that some parts of their body aren’t to be touched by others. But it’s a problematic phrase.
Prior to becoming a mum, I was a caseworker working with children in foster care. Part of the job was reporting allegations disclosed to me by the children. It wasn’t my role to conduct the investigations. But it was my role to ask appropriate questions to obtain the allegation itself.
Some allegations are about sexual abuse. Some children report being touched on their “private parts.” One assumes that they’re referring to their penis or vagina. Why? Because that’s what most of us are referring to when we use that phrase. However, the child could be referring to any body part.
When it comes to things we want our children to be able to communicate clearly, one of them is whether their right to safety is at risk or has been violated. Being able to name and identify body parts correctly is an important part of that.
My son is now 5 months old. I’ve noticed both my husband and I saying things like “we’ve got to clean your pecker” during bath time or a nappy change. It’s a habit I’d like to break.
What we say to our children becomes a habit. But it’s not just our language that our children learn; it’s how to make inferences.
If you tell your child they have ‘private parts’ or use a nickname for the penis or vagina, how do you react if you hear them say the proper name? I’m sure we’ve all said or heard responses like “we don’t say that word; that’s not a nice word.” I’ve responded that way myself in the past. One inference a child can make here though is that their penis or vagina is bad. While that fits perfectly well with your desire to lock up your daughter until she’s 40, it’s not a great foundation to lay for her.
Another inference a child can make is that their private parts are to be private matters. This isn’t just in the sense that they’re not to be touched, but private in the sense that they’re not to be talked about…ever. It’s no wonder that children feel things like shame, fear and embarrassment when disclosing abuse. Think about how your child would feel if (heaven forbid) they disclosed that their ‘private parts’ had been touched. In order to follow this up, you or another authority figure would have to clarify which private part they were referring to – saying that bad word that you’re not allowed to say would be pretty daunting huh?
We need to ask ourselves whether our good intentions for using the phrase ‘private parts’ outweighs the importance of teaching our children about their body, their right to their body and their right to safety.
We need to teach our children what consent means and what respect looks like. We need to teach them about power imbalances and what to do when they feel unsafe.
The thing is, we shouldn’t be having these conversations with our children just about their penis or vagina. They should be about their whole body – all ten fingers, all ten toes and every hair on their head.
I want to equip my son with all the tools he needs to engage in healthy and safe relationships. From now on, I will be telling him that he has a penis, not a ‘private part.’
I'm married to Sam and I'm a mother to Henry.