Saturday, February 28, 2015

Naming Genitalia: Of Pocketbooks and Peaches

In what seems like another lifetime, my exquisitely erudite mother introduced me to the legendary line from Shakespeare wherein the ill-fated Juliet declares that “a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet” regardless of what words we might use to signify it. Not moved to push back against my mother, or the Bard, I recall that I agreed. 

But if we’re going to import that reasoning to suggest that names of things don’t matter in the real world, I’d withdraw my support. Names do matter, and the words by which we call things really do impact our sense of what they are. The utterances that we assign to objects, artifacts, places, and people are pivotal in enabling our understanding of our relationship to them; in a very real sense, then, the language we attach to things shapes the reality that we experience every day.

So… every once in a while someone in a group I’m speaking with mentions talking with her/his children about their so-called “private” body parts. “Great,” is my usual and enthusiastic response. “I’m so glad you’re having that conversation!” And truly, I really am thrilled when people tell me they’re beginning what I hope will be an open-ended, candid and thoughtful discussion about human sexuality that will continue for as long as the parties involved are alive; since the role that our sexuality plays in our lives is both pivotal and ever-evolving throughout our time here.

Still, I’ve got to admit that I find myself rendered slack-jawed sometimes at the sheer numbers of folks who make the conscious decision not to use the correct names for male and female genitalia when talking with their children. And let me also admit that I’m certainly not suggesting that a kid’ll grow up to be a serial killer based on the happenstance that her/his parents referred to his penis as his “po-po” or his “tee lee” (or is that tea leaf?) or his “bing bang.”

But I’d be lying by omission if I failed to say it baffles me that we have no problem teaching our children that a hand is called a hand, a foot is called a foot, and so on, but when we get to that troublesome nether region between navel and thighs, we get all reticent and tongue-tied about referring to what resides there by using the proper terminology. Not some obscure and technical Latin-derived medical jargon, mind you, just the regular, accepted, coin-of-the-realm words that the rest of the population uses. 

As I ponder this whole business, the phenomena afoot here seem pretty interesting. On the one hand, as parents, most of us want to empower our children as much as is humanly possible, since most of us know full well that the world beyond our embrace of them promises to do what it can to stop our precious progeny in their tracks. On the other hand, many of us resort to rationalizations about not wanting to “force them to grow up too soon” or “their little mouths just aren’t able to form those words” as reasons for dragging out the pet names whenever the words “penis” or “uterus” or “testicles” or “vagina” seem a bit too much to handle. 

But let’s be clear: any awkwardness involved here that renders this too much to handle is only too much for the adults involved to handle; certainly not for the children, sweet babies, who invariably start out eager to learn whatever will help them navigate the world they happened to be born into more competently.

What’s even more interesting is that many of us fail to think through to the end result of the sort of cowardice I’m talking about here. Children are notoriously literal in their interpretation of things and it’s not by choice. It’s a function of the way their thought-processes develop. So if someone a child trusts, like a parent or grandparent, for example, teaches the child that the mac and cheese he/she had for dinner goes into her stomach, and then goes on to “explain” that babies grow inside someone’s “stomach,” we certainly can’t blame said child for concluding, then, that unborn babies float around in a gummy mess of masticated mac and cheese. Gross!

Surely, the vast majority of parents, grandparents and other significant adults in our children’s lives are concerned about having our kids grow up with a healthy respect for, and comfort with their bodies. To this large majority, I’d say that teaching our children the correct names for their body parts – all of them – is a mammoth leap in that direction. If nothing else, it gives children a valuable, universal vocabulary that is currency within their culture for speaking about, and linguistically claiming, every part of their physical selves. It enables them to express themselves intelligently and with agency when talking with health care professionals who, like it or not, often tend to make judgments about the adequacy of home environments and children’s intellectual competence based upon what comes out of kids’ mouths. 

More sobering still, if a parent’s quintessential nightmare should occur and a child is sexually assaulted, children who can speak accurately - definitively - about the body parts involved are more likely to be believed and are more easily understood in many jurisdictions.

Still, people who hear me speak about this often see me smile when I ask around the room about the pet names for vagina. “Peach,” “princess” and “coo” seem to get a vigorous workout, although some of what I hear is regional, of course. In fact, moms in the deep South seem pretty fond of “pocketbook,” indeed. Ingeniously enough, it’s derived, to hear them tell it, from the women’s own acknowledgement that at the end of the day, the world’s so-called “oldest profession” can still be pretty much relied upon to stand between a woman and a life of financial deprivation.

So what, exactly, is wrong with the cutesy coded little pet names we ourselves may have grown up with? Must we forsake them altogether in the interest of raising a healthy, competent, well adjusted child? What I’d say is this: cutesy coded little pet names can have their place, but please, let’s have them alongside the real-deal terminology, not as a replacement for it.

And if we feel we just can’t part with the nostalgic cute stuff, let’s at least agree that kids should feel just as comfortable hearing and saying the word “penis” as they are with “po po,” with “vagina as with “pocketbook,” wouldn’t you agree? And if parents decide to choose only one vocabulary, I’d seriously hope that they’d join countless of their peers and go with the terms that empower, that normalize their kids’ relationships with ALL the spectacular parts of their amazing physical selves. 

Why not…?

photo credit: <a

href="">Faith and Giant Peach_3214</a>via<ahref="">photopin</a><a

photo credit:<a

via <a href="">photopin</a><a

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