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Teaching a Child to Refer to her Genitalia as the C Word (Guest Post)

I've been a fan of Renee from Womanist Musings' (@womanistmusings) work for a long time and loved having the opportunity to connect with her recently on Skype as we filmed her segment of my toddler years video. I've been begging her to guest post for me for a while and am happy to finally have a piece of her work to share with you. Please welcome Renee to the blog.

Teaching a Child to Refer to her Genitalia as the C Word

Every parent eventually has to make a decision regarding what to teach their children about their genitalia.  Some people simply cannot bear to give their children the correct anatomical names and instead make up cutesy nick names for them.  In doing so, what they don't recognize, is that they are introducing the idea of shame when it comes to both the physical body and sex and sexuality.  As the years pass, it sends a strong message that certain body parts are dirty and not to be spoken of.

The unhusband and I made the decision to tell our sons that they had both a penis and testes. This should not have been a controversial decision; however, when they entered school, one teacher  asked my oldest son to refer to his genitalia as his wee wee, because his forthrightness about his body made her uncomfortable. What should seem like a straight forward decision, can at times become complex depending on the people that you and your child interact with.

I recently came across the story of a feminist dad who decided to push the envelop when it came to talking to his daughter about her genitalia.

I really never thought this would happen. I had a vision that I was going to be able to raise my kids differently than anyone ever had, that they’d grow up free of racial prejudice and television and only wearing pink and all the other bad stuff that’s wandered into the head of any other kid, ever.

Sadly, that is not always the situation. Case study #1: Language.

In college I read Inga Muscio‘s amazing book Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. (I was a feminist! I was the only guy in Womyn’s Issues Now! I could do anything!) Essentially, the point of that book was that the word “cunt” used to be an honorific term for the female ruler of a country, whereas the word “vagina” is an Old English Latin word meaning “sheath for a sword.” And, in the earliest days of changing nappies and learning how female people wipe, I was quick to teach my gurgling baby proto-feminist girl to say “cunt!” instead of “vagina” — or instead of whatever other term you’d use.

No matter what anyone else said, or how they looked at me when I said it. In fact, because of how they looked at me when I said it. (source)

I think there is a good argument to made that teaching a little girl to refer to her genitalia as only a vagina, is teaching her to refer only to a specific part of her anatomy.  It is based in the idea that the only part of our genitalia that matters, is the opening that allows penetration by a man.  I would fully support teaching a child to use vulva instead; however,  I believe that cunt is not the appropriate choice to thwart the limiting social construction of what female genitalia signifies.

There are some women who have chosen to reclaim the word cunt. This is an individual choice, and the same cannot be said for a father who actively chooses to teach his daughter this word.  I think first we must consider that we are talking about a male parent. No matter the intention of the man in question, the word cunt will always be problematic.  He may have done the research of the etymological roots, but the fact of the matter is that today the word cunt is socially understood to be a reductive word used to attack and debase women, no matter how many times you watch the Vagina Monologue and watch as Eve Ensler, encourages the men in the audience to shout out the word.  Intent does not magically alter the social understanding of a word in question.

There are several groups who have attempted to reclaim words.  Some Blacks have attempted to reclaim the slur nigger and some gay people have also done so with the word queer, but despite their efforts, these words are still actively used as a slur, and even within the communities to whom these words belong, the idea of reclamation is not necessarily universally embraced. Then there are communities like the disabled community, who are attempting to ask people to reconsider their usage of words like retard, lame, crazy, and moron, with little success I might add. Regardless of the community that you address, a large part of the issue with these problematic words is that they not only have become socially ingrained, the meaning of each of these words has developed their own unique definition.

In many ways, this mans effort reminds me of those who insist on claiming that they were only talking about a cigarette, when called on their usage of the word f#g. Part of raising socially aware children is teaching them to think for themselves.  It begins by setting a foundation in which they are taught that all people matter regardless of their race, sexuality, gender, age, or ability.  From there, the next step should be a discussion of common isms aimed at historically marginalized group, along with the concept of privilege. The final stage, and the most exciting I might add, is turning their questions around and asking them what they think and why.  This can be as simple asking themselves to picture how they would feel in the place of the marginalized person at first.

I disagree with this man's approach because his first thought removes choice.  Not all women believe that the word cunt should be reclaimed, and many, myself included, find it extremely offensive. He could have chosen to thwart the common understanding of female genitalia and use the term labia and then had a discussion on why cunt might be a word for her to consider, but instead he used his adult and male privilege to decide for her.  There may well come a time when she pulls away from her father's understanding and decides that this word is not suitable for her, but we all know that ideas when introduced at a very young age are very difficult to overcome in later years. In this instance, I believe respecting women and encouraging agency should come with the right to name and that is something that was taken from her, in his bid to be the ultimate feminist man. Every person should have the right and ability to cherish their bodies.

Any parent who engages in social justice parenting will tell you that it is an uphill battle.  There are times when your children will say the most insightful things, and you will be filled with immense pride, and others when you feel it is hopeless because they have learned and internalized such negative things from either their friends, or the media.

Renee Martin is the proud mother of two very active young boys. She resides in Niagara Falls On with her family, where she works as a freelance writer and blogger.    Her home blogs are, Womanist Musings and Fangs for the Fantasy.

Photo credit:moxieg on flickr

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Reader Comments (31)

Well said!

I think it's a good thing to have easy, neutral names for children's genitalia. 'Penis' and 'vulva' are perfectly fine but I the prefere more playful names that we have use Sweden. For boys we've used 'snopp' for a very long time but it took until 2006 before RSFU (http://www.rfsu.se/en/Engelska/About-rfsu/Our-responsibility/This-is-RFSU/) invented an equivalent word for girls - 'snippa'. Even though many still object to the use and prefere their own made up words the use is now widely spread and included in the official swedish dictionary.

Perhaps there can be a similar development in US, a compromise between non-offensive and still correct and well-known labels for childrens genitalia.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMinnia

This guy is intriguing, but yeah, going down that road is problematic. Around here, we call girls' genitalia (and boys, I guess, for that matter, although when referring to the dog, she calls his penis a "wiener") at this young, preschool age the "private spot." That is exactly what it is. She can touch it herself, when she is alone in private, but nobody except mommy and a doctor, if mommy is there, is supposed to touch it except for her. My kid is so funny she gets wiggly and weird when I am trying to do a basic washcloth swipe of the general area. I think this is good. At the same time, I've seen her touching herself under a blanket, she like to run around naked, etc. so she is free and without shame, but aware of the appropriateness privateness of that area. I think when she is old enough to learn about the specific biological mechanisms of things (when is that these days? 8, 10? ugh....) I'll be sure by then she knows the real names. As an aside, I hate the new tendency, at least in American culture, to call anything in the general vicinity of that region the "vagina"...even pro-female sites like Jezebel referred to it as a "vagina" for an article on waxing, and really, you don't wax the vagina.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Rochester

Well said, indeed. When I first read about his teaching his daughter to use cunt, I felt really uneasy about it. I think it's really not that different than using other euphemisms for genitalia regardless of the history of the word. I'll be teaching my daughter (and future son) vulva and if she wants to use a different word later that will be her choice.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

Wow, if your son got "corrected" for saying "penis" what's going to happen to this little girl when she goes to school and starts talking about her "cunt?"

For the record, my daughter (age 3) talks about her vulva, and know that she also has a vagina which is "kind of hiding in her vulva." (Not totally thrilled with having used the word "hiding" but it's the best description I could come up with to explain where it is.)

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWhozat

Our 4yo girl shows much more interest in her body parts, especially the 'private' ones than our 6yo boy does, or ever did. Using proper terminology to describe what she is looking at, or touching, is what we do. But sometimes I wonder how deep to go. How much does she need to know right now, at 4? She's a blabber mouth...will she go telling everyone she knows about the various body parts that some other people might think inappropriate resulting in her hearing something that will make her feel shameful? Will I get 'talked to' by a parent whose child went home and said 'Sonja said her vagina is red and itch' or something like that?

It's a slippery slope, is what I think.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJavamom

We've used "front bottom" and "back bottom" to talk about cleanliness, discomfort., etc. They are gentle yet accurate terms that hopefully would bode well at friends houses, school, etc. That especially helps when they are very young, like 2 - 3 years. When we get more specific, we use the terms urethra, vagina and anus. It had not occurred to me to use vulva, that is a good one to add as well.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercari

My daughters are almost fine and 2 1/2. We have always used the correct terminology ie. anus, vagina, vulva, I even try urethra but that's definitely hard for little ones to say! I can't understand using one word for vulva, vagine and urethra, as they have quite different functions! My daughters know I use tampons (can't keep them out of the bathroom ever) so it makes no sense to imply they go in where the urine comes out.

Some people are surprised by the words we used but we haven't had any negative reactions. People who are going to judge us can get stuffed! I try not to worry about what people with think and remind myself that I am making the best parenting choices I can in my opinion and that's the main thing.

As for the father referred to in the post, I completely agree with Renee's position.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTamara in NZ

Sorry, almost five! She's definitely fine!

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTamara in NZ

Thank you so much for sharing your space with me.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRenee Martin

I agree with your take on this, Renee, 100%. Cunt may be a word that some women wish to reclaim and if so, more power to them, but its cultural baggage is such that I think it's not a father's place (or indeed a mother's) to make that choice for them in infancy. Personally, after having been viciously attacked using this very same word by males in power over me, from childhood onwards, I would never seek to use it. To me it's a hurtful word, a degrading word (I know others feel differently, and that's OK too).

My two elder daughters (almost 7 and 8.5) refer to their vulvas if talking about external genitalia or the whole package, but will also use vagina appropriately (eg. "Aunty A's baby was pushed out from her vagina!") They stumble over "urethra" sometimes and the younger one will resort to "the wee hole" if trying to describe urinary discomfort, but she def knows the other term, just finds it hard to say.

My 3-year-old, on the other hand, has, according to her, a "Volvo" in which lives her "Jyna" and her "Wee Wee Hole." Perhaps we oughtn't to find this amusing, but we kind of do :-) We continue to use vulva and vagina in conversation with her and I'm sure she'll self-correct eventually (when she gets sick of her Volvo, I suppose!)

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKathy

Thought-provoking post. I grew up in a household that used euphemisms for male and female body parts. I was determined to do things differently with my own kids. We have been consistent, but it has not always been easy--when your four year-old is in the grocery store singing a made up song about her brother's penis, or when she at three years old informs her male chiropractor, "You know, I'm a girl and I have a vagina," well, you think that your own parents had it easy being shame-filled and secretive.

Now as for teaching his daughter the word "cunt" as terminology at that age...I'm uneasy about it as well. I think it's problematic because it's not just a value-neutral body part term. It's a fairly heavy curse word, a favorite of construction workers and laborers everywhere, and usually not found in "polite" every day conversation. Even the vaguely analogous "prick," would not be considered by most to be so offensive a swear (think of the amount of time you'd hear it in "Sex and the City" for example), yet we'd also not expect a little boy to come into school and tell the nurse that he injured his prick on the playground at recess.

I don't think that teaching a little girl to use this term, especially when she is ignorant of all the connotations and baggage associated with it, will help with any reclamation efforts. All it will do is embarrass a little kid when she uses it in front of other adults and kids and she gets admonished for it. Why do that to her?

I just wanted to add, as an anecdote, that my former city has a long running annual Fringe festival, with performers from around the world. Out of the all the thousands of plays and acts over the 30 years, only one show generated huge amounts of controversy on title alone and eventually led to its posters being removed. What was the play? "The Happy Cunt." Such is the stigma attached to the term.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJ.

I'm not all that worried about what other parents think or say. One of the Grade 1 kids told the whole class that there is no tooth fairy, so I figure correct terms for body parts is pretty tame (although my kids may go further and explain how those body parts are used to conceive and deliver babies).

That said, we have taught our kids the correct terms for their genitalia, but also use the term "private parts". I find that term useful in two ways -- first, it gives them something to say "in polite company" and second, it helps reinforce the idea that no one else has the right to touch them there.

Interestingly, my kids have also come up with their own terms for different parts of their genitalia that describe their function more than their anatomically correct term -- e.g. baby hole, pee pee bum, poo poo bum, etc. They do also have some language/cultural specific terms that they use.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I own "Cunt: A Declaration of Independence" and loved it. I also refer to my daughter's genitalia as her vulva and anus and vagina. She's 2 1/2 years old. I need to know if she has discomfort, and she needs to know she can talk to me about her body. She doesn't need to be involved in politics or heavy social issues regarding language usage at this age. And as much as I loved the book, I can't bring myself to use the word.

And too be fair, if we are talking about the whole diapered area, "tushy" is the familiar friendly term. As in "Your tushy is getting pink, please tell Mama when you pee or poop so I can change your diaper right away and keep you clean and comfy okay?" "Okay Mama." (She almost never does.)

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKirsten

Javamom, I don't think that a parent who teaches her/his children the anatomical terms for their body parts (any body part, anywhere on the body) should ever feel like they need to apologize to anyone. Children deserve to be told the actual names of things. Can you imagine ever being ashamed that your child knew the word "wrist" or "hair follicle"? So often we answer children's questions about digestion or their senses but not about the "private parts" and how they work.

I have three sons, ages 4, 6, and 9. They know that they have a penis, a foreskin, a scrotum with testicles inside. They know that women have a vagina and a vulva, and a uterus inside where babies grow. I'm not sure if they know the word labia, but if I had a daughter, I'm sure it would have come up, and the need to know the word clitoris might even have come up. If a teacher had ever indicated discomfort with any of this, I would have simply said that these are the anatomical terms for those body parts, and that it's a shame that he or she is uncomfortable with those words. I probably would have asked if he/she were willing to think about his/her reasons for being uncomfortable. If he/she had insisted that my child use "weewee" or any other term, I would have taken the issue to the principle. No school should ever tell a child not to use anatomically correct terms for body parts!

Will you get "talked to"? Possibly. And if you do, I'm sure you'll be gentle in your response. I hope that you'll stand your ground, though. There's absolutely nothing wrong with what you have done! It is not your responsibility to make other people less prudish. ;)

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJess

My 20 month old is obsessed with farm animals, hatching and eggs being layed and and perhaps as a consequence has recently started to refer to her privates as her "baby chick". I will have to correct her soon I guess!

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTess

I have 2 sons, 4.5 and 2.5. We casually call their penises "pee pees" but when specifically talking about their penises (as in, "mommy, why don't you have one?") I call it a penis and I call mine a vagina. I don't think he cares about the various parts so I find vagina specific enough for him. If I had a daughter, I'd go into more detail. He understands that I am a girl and thus I have a vagina and he is a boy and has a penis. We haven't gotten into more than that, but when he becomes interested in those fun things behind his penis, we'll talk about scrotums and testicles. It kind of never occurred to me to talk about his foreskin...it's kind of all part of the package to me. But if we ever need to go into specifics on cleaning, I'll call it a foreskin. Though cleaning an intact penis is 1000 times easier, I don't really understand the confusion or idea that it's hard to clean. Anyhow. I come from a family of 4 girls and one boy and we all generically called our genitalia "pee pees". I don't think it was harmful or made us feel like they were private, it was just a logical name since that was where you peed from. My son knows he's welcome to play with his penis all he wants, in the bath or whatever, not out in the living room or whatever. I have never made it a bad thing, just a thing we do in the bathroom or bedroom. Oh and we call the buttocks, bum or butt.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMo

We use correct terminology. My husband and I are scientific people and don't care to dumb down anatomy for our kids. Also, in making up cutesy words, I feel like I'm telling them that some of their questions won't be answered and they have to settle for less than facts which doesn't sit well with me. So the 1 year old says "bubba" (her best version of vulva) and my 6 year old knows labia and vagina and how babies are made and how they come out. I don't want her to feel ashamed of her body, but I want her to know limits as far as not letting other people touch her and to keep her undies on with friends. BUt to me, I am just not ok with dumbing things down to make it more socially acceptable. We unschool. A question about a body part sparks an entire biology lesson complete with the anatomy books being pulled out and I would not want to stifle that curiosity and those lessons that come in response.

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChrissy

I've found this to be a tricky topic as well... I think "cunt" is a bit further than I'd be willing to go, but the naming of our private bits seems to be ridiculously problematic in our society, no matter which way a parent tries to navigate the issue. I think it's important for a child to know the correct terms, but I also think we get a bit overly stuck on this. I've made sure that my son knows that he has a penis and testicles (and, when he asked, that girls have a vulva), but yes, I do use the cutesy terms too, as I would for any other part of my son's body--bum, noggin, piggies, and all. Let's face it... bits of the body that spend that much time making messes and/or being wiped clean are going to earn a nickname or two ;-)

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIsabelle

It has been far easier to use the correct terminology for the boy parts than the girl parts. I am not sure where this stems from and wonder if it has anything to do with a culture of shame? Or perhaps it is that it is harder to describe for me?

Right now we are working on using vulva for my baby girl (3.5), but we use the general buns for the entire area covered by underpants for both her and the boys. They know their parts pretty well by now at 5 & 7. ;)

I can see where this feminist dad may be coming from, but without reading the whole thing it smacks of privilege and is only bound to make it difficult for his daughter in the long run. If that is a word that a woman would like to reclaim for herself, then that is one thing, but to act like the modern usage of that word is not important is ignorant.

I have taught my DD to use the word vulva and vagina, etc. and my three DS to use penis, testicles, scrotum, etc. Seems like a no-brainer to me -- so helpful when my kids can tell me exactly what's going on if they hurt their gentalia by accident ("Mom, I caught my foreskin in my zipper!!!! Help!!!!" rather than "My pee-pee hurts!!!")

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCin

Ooof. I love the book Cunt, but yeah, that is some male privilege, even though he wants to be making things different...hmm. The fact that he was IN college when it was published, makes me feel older, LOL. (I had finished my BA a year before, I believe.)
Anyhow, we had euphemisms I'm sure as kids, and there was certainly some parental discomfort/shame/whatever, which was problematic.
One of my favorite bits in the book is about reassuring a relative's child [after seeing her covertly playing with herself], "Everybody plays with their wah-chee!" Heh.
Vulva is an excellent term. I'm sure I'd use that and other anatomical words if I had kids.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAl_Pal

Ha! My daughter is in the habit of saying "valva", because of the ubiquity of sippy cups with valves in them. Changing her pronunciation to "vulva" is taking some doing!

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTamara in NZ

I was raised to always used the proper terms. My grandmother thought I was going to hell in a handbasket because I told her my mom's baby was in her uterus NOT her stomach! Oh grandma! Vagina is the term my girls use to describe "the whole package" and I'm trying to introduce more specific terms (they are 6 and 3)...in time. I think playful names can be fun though too. Cuz these parts of the body can become too serious...they are fun and funny! Right now we are using the term my 3 year old started when she tried to pronounce vagina...VANINJA!!! It is just too awesome not to use. Vaninja indeed! The vagina is a bit mysterious and it does have superpowers : ).

Thanks for the thought provoking post!

PS I'm not down with cunt. I read the book he is referring too and I get it. I just can't use it.

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkelli

We use real words in our house.

There's no "slippery slope" in using correct terminology. We're talking about bodies - the bodies our children are going to be living in for the rest of their lives. If they CHOOSE to use different words for their own bodies at some point, that's one thing. But if my kids are having an issue with their bodies, I certainly want to know exactly what/where they're talking about.

I'd ask parents who insist their kids use cutesy terms (or the negatively-charged-in-most-cases term cunt) what are your OWN issues? Foisting your own politics or sex-shame on your children isn't right.

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

My almost 2 1/2 year old uses vulva and bum, as do almost all of my friend's female kids. It just seems like the ways it's done around here! That said, I remember when I was working in child protection in Australia about 10 years ago that teachers and childcare workers would sometimes report concerns about potential child abuse if children used accurate terminology for their genitalia. The would refer to it as "sexualized language", and considered it inappropriate and unusual for a young child to be using. I always found it a bit bizarre and I'd like to think it's no longer the case, but it's something to watch out for when your kids are out in the world without you.

February 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFiona

I have two boys. If I had a girl I'd teach her to say vulva, because that's what my mom taught me. I did teach my boys that they call their genitalia 'penis' and 'testicles', although for some reason my husband calls refers to their penises as their 'pee pee' s. I just don't get why we should have stupid code names for genitalia, it's nothing to be ashamed of. :) That said, the dad who taught his little girl to call her vulva a cunt? That's pretty uncool. If she wanted to call her vulva a cunt, maybe he could give her the book when she's 16 and let her make her own decision... Me, I'm all for reclaiming the word, but not when you're that little and don't know what you're saying.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhoebe

All good things to think about! I only learned just THIS YEAR, after having been married for 3 years, and giving birth, what all those different parts are. Labia? Clitoris? Yeah. All new to me and that's not okay with me. My daughter will be much more informed than I am. I watched an episode of New Girl today, and it just PERFECTLY illustrated our lack of comfort with genitalia in some ways.


February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

Very well put. I especially like the second to last paragraph.

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoline

We use anatomically correct names for body parts in our house. We have 3 girls and our oldest was molested at age 3. She used the correct names for genitalia and the investigators questioned the fact that she used the term penis because of her age. We got a conviction, so I am sure it did not backfire.
My MIL uses ridiculous words like hoohoo for vulva and gets very uncomfortable when my kids announce that their vulva hurts or something along those lines. I simply explain to her that they using the proper name for their body and I don't refer to their elbow as a weiner or a thingie.
The worst nickname that I have heard for genitals is "junk". Tell me that won't do some damage when the kid thinks of their genitals as trash.

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

I have three boys and one girl. We use penis and vulva. The problem with cutesy names is twofold. It causes shame and also can also make catching predators difficult. If a child says my uncle touches my cookie the meaning can be mistaken, however if she tells you he touches her vulva you will not mistake it. We teach our children the correct words for all other body parts, no cutesy names for noses or fingers. The genitalia are just that another part of our bodies.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal

Seems odd to go to the trouble of making a custom T-shirt detailing the female genitalia, and then getting both Labia (major and minor) wrong.

Oh well. Such is sex-ed.

May 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaula

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