How early is too early?
When is the appropriate time to discuss the female body with your female daughter? I was listening to a podcast speaker who recommended starting as early as two years old for using vocabulary like vagina and penis. While I agree with the philosophy of adopting an approach that excludes any form of body shaming, I think two years old maybe just a little too early for specific body vocabulary, and here’s why.
When our darling girl was learning to identify her body parts, we had a lovely ritual at night before she went to bed. Right after her bath, while we were dressing her for bed, she would say, “Kiss my nose,” to receive a kiss on her nose, “Kiss my elbow,” to receive a kiss on her elbow, etc. My husband and I always obeyed, until one night she said, “Kiss my bop-pum,” to receive a kiss on her bottom.
Me and Beloved looked at each other, eyebrows raised. Bottom was the generic word we had chosen to introduce her to that part of her anatomy covered by her diaper. There was nothing wrong with her use of the word, but I quickly diverted her attention by cheerfully asking, “Where’s your knee?” She gleefully pointed to it, and the game subtly shifted from “Kiss My…” to “Where is…?”
Why did I steer her attention away from her bottom? My issue wasn’t body shaming or propriety. My concern was completely different.
As a high school teacher, I knew teachers have a legal duty to report any situation we think might endanger a child, but I had no idea how it worked with toddlers. Our daughter’s innocent, “Kiss my bop-pum,” caused an image to flash in my mind, one where some morning she says it to her daycare teacher, and that afternoon the Department of Children Services shows up on our doorstep… which, of course, never happened, but the idea did give me pause.
Plus, we are a bi-racial couple, so that makes us different from the mainstream. We have to pay attention to how we want to portray ourselves to the community to circumvent misunderstandings. A little distraction today may prevent an incident tomorrow.
Our “bop-pum” story, now a favorite family anecdote, came to mind when heard the podcast today. Based on my own personal experiences, I offer this humble opinion: People are uncomfortable with things that are different. If body vocabulary is made casual within the family, small children will use it indiscriminately outside of the home, where it is not casual. Unfortunately, if their vocabulary is not as innocent-sounding to the rest of the world, they may receive negative feedback… but you may never be made aware of the conflict. Without the knowledge of what your toddlers are experiencing, you are helpless to address it.
- Adults taken by surprise may react with inappropriate disapproval, and confuse the child.
- Other children may tease her upon hearing words that are taboo in their own homes, or think she’s open to “bad words” because they’ve been taught that penis and vagina are said when you’re being naughty.
While a three-year-old may be able to use body vocabulary comfortably and appropriately, how do you explain the weird reactions of other people to someone that young… especially if she keeps it to herself?
Our job is to make our children understand and value themselves, and not to be embarrassed or ashamed. Yes, talk about the body freely with your children, but use age-appropriate vocabulary based on the social norm of your neighborhood. As kids get older, their vocabulary expands naturally, anyway, so why not wait for their words to catch up to their age? Doesn’t that seem better than letting their age catch up to their words?
No doubt the question will come up, so now is the time to figure out how you want to handle it. With a little preparation, you will do just fine.