Lesson 1: when you're talking to girls, what do you call it? You know, it. Well, maybe you don’t know, but I bet if you’re a parent of girls you know exactly what I mean. You’ve probably worried about it, asked a few friends, maybe even looked on a Mums’ Forum.
I am referring to the semantic difficulties posed by the whole genital area often just known as “downstairs” [nods meaningfully in relevant direction with pursed Les Dawson lips]. What do you call it? What do you tell your toddling daughter? What names do you give your little girl to call her body?
If you’ve never had this internal (ahem) debate, you may not see the immediate problems. And if you’re a laid back and cool-type parent, just roll your eyes and feel smug. Let me elaborate; whilst trying not to feel resentful towards all those parents who’ve only ever had to say, “It’s your willy, dear, now leave it alone please.”
As a Sex Ed professional, I believe children deserve better than euphemisms and that very English secrecy around sex. If we’re not honest from the very beginning we create all manner of peculiar hang-ups later on. And personally, I believe that words are powerful. How can we own and understand something we cannot name?
At school I blithely led a staff meeting telling my fellow teachers that we must be honest and accurate in discussing children’s bodies with them. We must use the correct vocabulary. We must stand confidently at the front of the class and say penis, vagina and testicles without deviation, hesitation, or repetition. Some teachers balked at having to say to KS1 boys, “Please don’t play with your penis in lessons”, preferring the traditional, “Get your hands out of your trousers RIGHT NOW! And wash them please.” However, I was insistent that this was the way forward, our responsibility to the children.
So, as a mum, I took a deep breath and taught my daughters that they had vaginas. Where babies come out. It’s not your bottom, it’s girl bits and right inside is your vagina. I taught them it’s ok to touch, just not in public. Please. Unfortunately, vagina is a lovely word: unusual and fascinating to say over and over again. Which is no doubt why, to my utter horror, dd2 (age 4) made up this little song:
“Your girl bits, your girl bits, that’s your bagina.”
Top marks for learning I suppose, but I ignored it in the most fervent of hopes that she forgets all about it and never, ever sings it in Polite Company. It was a nice introduction to lesson number 2: Please don’t go on about this at school, it’s not up to you to teach your friends these very grown-up words.
It could be worse though.
A friend decided she was just going to go with “fanny”. It’s no worse than willy, she thought. Until one day on holiday when her 4 year old son shouted across the beach,
“Mummy! Fiona’s putting pebbles up her fanny!”
She was mortified. It sounds horrible when a child says fanny. It just does.
So where does that leave you? Oh, the suggestions I’ve heard. Frou-frou. I mean, honestly? You could look your child in the face and say, “That’s your frou-frou”? I know I couldn’t. How can you teach your daughter to be proud of her body when you use shameful words?
There are plenty of words in the adult world, and if you can think of a single one that sounds great coming from a small child, I’d love to know. Maybe I should be reclaiming the words for my daughters. As an adult I have no problem with any of them. I would even use the “c-word” here, but you probably wouldn’t be expecting it from me, and I’d hate for you to spit your tea on the screen. It worries me that there are no accepted, everyday, casual words for girls’ genitals; women’s yes, but not girls. Perhaps it worries us to think of little girls as having the potential for womanhood, perhaps all the words are so sexual that we can’t bring ourselves to apply them to girls, perhaps it’s just another Victorian left-over that we need to get over.
Maybe I should just brazen it out, name without shame. I won’t though. Call me cowardly, but I just can’t be That Mum whose kids go round talking about their fannies. It’s bad enough being the Mum whose kid goes round singing a song about her bagina. Sigh.