Vocabulary to Lessen Stigma: Have you taught your kids these words?

In the past few weeks I’ve experienced tiny twinges of embarrassment, most like those last felt in my seventh grade sex ed class, except these came while reading a library book to my oldest. I’m reading away, maintaining a calm exterior but my head is spinning: erection, sperm, sex, intercourse, fallopian tubes, urethra! Oh my goodness, am I really saying these words to my FIVE YEAR OLD? And we get on a plane to see family tomorrow! Is he going to ask our pilot if she has a vagina? Or ask his grandpa if he has sperm swimming inside his testicles? I can be a little anxious at times.

How in the world did I get into this predicament? Well, by choice, through a very gradual education. I can blame most of it on one friend who is also passionate about child development. When she passed on her copy of Nurture Shock to me a year or two ago, I ate it up. I am a huge believer in evidence-based practice. For medicine, for speech-language pathology, and yes, for parenting. (And I admit to dreaming that we’d run our country this way, too.) I guess I see it like most things we do: there is a science and an art. So, this book basically shares the most intriguing research applicable to raising children and readers can decide if and how they’re going to apply the knowledge.

The chapter “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” resonated deeply with me and also kicked my butt a bit. One survey shared that 75% of white parents never or almost never talk about race, even though most have good intentions to not raise racist children. Some parents didn’t share because they didn’t want to say “the wrong thing” or thought pointing out race was worse than not talking about it. Some thought that exposing them to various races and cultures or reading them books and showing them videos would be enough to prevent bias.

But lots of research is showing otherwise and I imagine those in less privileged positions are saying, “No duh!” right now and trying not to roll their eyes. One researcher reasoned that kids are “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism” and will naturally categorize by whatever attributes are most visible. Young children needed to know the specific vocabulary or else they would refer to “skin like ours” or “eyes like mine” for descriptors of people, instead of the appropriate racial title, like Asian or Hispanic. Additionally, many older kids automatically assumed that their parents’ silence was actually an indication of them “not liking black people.” By early elementary school, kids already made their own categories of division and were making decisions based upon this schema.

Sad and convicted that I was one of those white parents not talking about race (this silence comes from such a place of privilege!), I started talking to Charlie, then four years old, about race, including details about where people originated while looking at a map. It also felt like a good time to talk about languages, food, and other cultural practices. We continue to discuss that many people treat others poorly because of these differences. He inherently sees that that’s sad. He understands it’s not right. Thankfully, this can be more than just talk for us. We have friends of different races with whom we regularly spend time. It is an ongoing conversation but he is at least getting an introduction to the vocabulary and he knows this topic is safe to talk about. Eventually we will talk about white privilege, how to identify and understand our own biases and how we can better live into racial reconciliation. I am not so naive as to think that our early discussions will prevent our children from having bias, so I see this as purely a jumping off point.

I have thought about these ideas of developmental categorization and parental silence a lot. Not just with race, but in relation to many other topics that are often stigmatized, including our bodies, sex and sexuality. So, I have really worked hard to be more open while maintaining respect for the current abilities to understand topics. When I was about to have Miles, Charlie asked how the baby would come out of me. I paused to think a bit and responded, “Well, boys have two holes, one for pooping and one for peeing. Girls have three holes, one for pooping, one for peeing and one that babies can come out of.” That was it. He was satisfied and I felt good that I was honest with him but also gave him a reasonable amount of information to process at age three.

Several months ago I taught Charlie about circumcision because he laughed at a cartoon boy’s uncircumcized “silly penis.” I shared this with friends and the very same friend who lent me Nurture Shock recommended It’s NOT the Stork!  I put it on hold from our library system, picked it up, and placed it in our usual library book spot. Later that afternoon, I found Charlie sitting on our couch with the book opened up to this page:


I wasn’t quite ready for that.

But, we started reading. Not on that page. It’s not the first, thankfully. I had to live into these beliefs, once again. If vocabulary is one building block for understanding the world around us, I’d rather give him these words now and deal with deeper levels of understanding later. I don’t want it to be hard to say the words “penis” or “vagina” around my boys when they’re older. How in the world would we talk about sex, condoms, and STDs without crawling out of our skin? And I definitely don’t want to leave this education up to their peers, the media or schools. As crazy as it is to read these things to such a little person, I am enormously relieved we’ve opened the door for open conversation about our bodies and sex at a young age. Right now there is NO embarrassment for him and I get to practice being more comfortable with the topic. This is key for me. He has yet to categorize such discussions as off-limits for his parents and now I’m hoping he never does. Here’s to saying “erection” at the dinner table, folks! Ok, maybe before the meal.


9 thoughts on “Vocabulary to Lessen Stigma: Have you taught your kids these words?

  1. Juliet Anderson

    I need to read the rest of Nurture Shock–got up the chapter about race and then had to return it to the library. You’re an inspiration to all!

  2. Angie

    Great post, Kathleen. I’m guilty of not talking about race because I was afraid that by bringing attention to it, it would only enforce “differences.” Bad idea! When Emma came home from kindergarten, her eyes were wide after learning about MLK and she said, “Mom! Did you know…” and relayed the whole story to me. I felt bad that *I* hadn’t been the one to tell her about race. However… lol… she shook her head at the end of the story and said, “It’s just so sad that you and Daddy would’ve had to shop at different stores!” (Gary’s just got a perpetual California tan year-round, unlike white girl here. So maybe she didn’t quite get it…)Also! At MOPS this year, a woman came and spoke to us about keeping our children safe from sexual predators. One of the #1 things we can do to help our kids and not make them targets, is to teach them the proper names for our anatomy. This clues predators in to the fact that we openly talk about it within our families and that they’ll be able to communicate if they are touched inappropriately. WHOA. That was eye opening. So… *gulp*… I said goodbye to the “wee wee” and pulled out the “penis.” …so to speak. 😉 Scary step, but super important. I feel like my girls are naive – as they should be at 6 and 8 – but maybe not as informed as they could be. Hard balance, huh?

  3. Rhea

    This is such an incredible piece, and I feel so inspired by it! (I too read Nurture Shock and wrote a blog post about it: http://thirtythreadbaremercies.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/talking-to-your-kids-… if you want to check that out.) But I love that YOU made the connection of extending the openness of communication to sexuality. I hope that I can have the same courage as you and boldly proclaim the correct terminology for everything. I think it takes the shame right out of sexuality, and that is what is desperately needed in our culture.

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