The body as home

When I found out I was pregnant, there were a small handful of things that I wanted to make sure I did with my child: reading books, going on walks, and having an appreciation for adventure and discovery. I didn’t know exactly how this was going to pan out, but I thought I would teach it as best I could. So far, it’s been a rousing success and now that my daughter has just turned two, she’s super chatty and interested in things around her. She wants to know what things are, what words mean, and how thing work. I am charmed, delighted, and proud of her.

When we started singing Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes with her, I started working on naming all of her body parts with her. (For a while, she was obsessed with the word nipples, which thankfully has passed.) I want her to know about her body and I want her to know that it does awesome things for her: jumping, running, swimming, singing songs, playing. I’d also like her to be able to accurately describe her own experiences (if she falls and scrapes her knee, she can specify what hurts), but also because I want to protect her, so that if anything bad were ever to happen to her, she’d be able to explain it. So in the interest of age-appropriate sex education, I taught her the word vulva. She wanted to know what it was when she was taking a bath, and I thought, why not tell her? It’s as much as part of her as her eyes, her fingers, her legs. Why should she be ashamed of it? Why should I suggest that there was anything weird about wanting to know about her body?

So I explained that was her vulva and that most girls had one. I said that most boys had different body parts, called a penis, (although this was not an guaranteed distinction) and then after she’d repeated the words once or twice, she went back to playing with bath toys. I had sort of assumed that she’d taken this in and then forgotten about it, until the other day when I was helping her use the bathroom. She asked for toilet paper, used it, and then yelled at the top of her lungs “I touch my vulva!”

Thank god we were in the bathroom at our own house.

I know my face turned bright red, I know I tried not to sputter, I know I tried not to laugh. Ultimately, I wound up biting my lip very hard and then saying, “Yes, you are correct, that’s your vulva.”

“Vulva!” She announced cheerfully. “I touch my vulva!”

I managed to get out a few sentences about correctly naming body parts and worked in a few sentences about privacy and boundaries. (Given how often she charges into the bathroom while one of us is showering or something, I think it’s something she’s not quite sorted out yet.) I was also immediately reminded of an excerpt from Our Bodies, Ourselves.* It was a little vignette in which a mother described her own daughter (age 4ish) playing in the bathtub and being delighted with her own body, including her vulva. The mother remarked that she wished she could go back to that un self-conscious feeling of her own body as home, as some place simultaneously familiar and exciting.

One of the best, best lessons I learned from my own mother was to treat my body as something awesome that did cool, cool things: soccer, running around with a cape on and being a superhero, racing through books, coloring, writing, chasing my siblings around the backyard, swimming in the ocean. And part of my body doing awesome things, she explained, was being nice to it: getting enough sleep, eating well, things like that. My mother and I have never talked about sex, but I eventually learned about that being yet another cool thing that my body did.

This is something I want so badly for my own daughter, that it’s almost painful. I am doing everything I can to make sure she gets to feel like her body is her own, that it’s home, and that it’s awesome. That she knows that she is strong, that she is capable, and that she can do things. I also want her to know that her body won’t do everything she ever wants it to, and that her current abilities may not stay the same. I want her to have a narrative for self-care, for knowing about herself, and being proud of her abilities, whatever they happen to be.

And having her yell the word vulva at top volume is totally worth it.

*I had an original version of this that I acquired from my mother, and I think this story appeared only in the original. I don’t remember it from the updated version.


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29 Responses to The body as home

  1. Libby Anne says:

    My daughter is two as well, and I am trying my darndest to do the same. :)

  2. CassandraSays says:

    I would find that hilarious. But yeah, probably good that you were at home when it happened.

    The matter of fact approach to body parts is one that seems to work well. That’s how my mother raised me, and I’m thankful for it.

  3. Spilt Milk says:

    My daughter (3.5) is proud of her ability to say vulva but she does get confused with terminology: at her daycare they call it a ‘bottom’ (what??) and so that’s what she says sometimes.

    We have constant conversations about privacy and boundaries. I was interested in your mention of her charging in on you – we basically have an open bathroom policy at home (for immediate family) and our daughter bathes with both of us. I see this as part of her education – she sees ‘normal’ ( not airbrushed) bodies and sees that we are not ashamed. She’s curious, but not overly. It was only yesterday that she asked, mummy why do you have fluff on your vulva? This illustrated to me that children really do just learn these things in tiny steps, and being open isn’t scary. For eg, she knows she used to ‘live in mummy’s tummy’ but she’s not asked how she got there or how she came out. Time for those conversations later!

    I do find though that being ok with seeing each other naked can make I harder to enforce the idea that we do have the right to privacy when we want it. There are days I want the bathroom to myself and have to work hard to make that happen.

    It is so important to me that she grows up feeling happy and safe at home in her body. A wonderful gift that your mother gave you evil fizz – I was not so lucky – I was told my vulva was ‘ dirty’ from the age of two – but I hope to break that particular cycle.

  4. Michelle says:

    Can I admit that while I totally agree and love this, I haven’t yet taught my daugther “vulva”? In fact, I want to teach her, but everyone locally (at least, by what I can tell from the preschool terminology) teaches their girls that they have a vagina. And they do have a vagina (I’m presuming.) But if her vulva hurts when she pees, that’s not her “vagina hurting.” And so we refer generally to her bottom and if it hurts, pointing where, making sure she knows how to appropriately wipe with toilet paper, etc. Which is stupid. But I also know that if she goes to school and tells the other little girls gleefully that she has a vulva, there will be some awkward issues that come up with other parents. So I am frozen and a chicken.

  5. Meghan says:

    This is, oddly enough, one of those stories that makes me think “Yes, I do want to have kids someday!” It’s hilarious and awesome. It’s fascinating to watch people discover these things for the first time. Your level of honesty is inspiring. I still, decades later, remember simple little lies my parents told me as a child, like when my mom explained to 7-year-old me that a period was just something that happened when you get older and sometimes you have “too much blood” in your body.

    Michelle does bring up a good point, though. At that curious age, kids also like to brag about their new knowledge. What do you do when your toddler goes telling the next door neighbor about vulvas, instead of the next door neighbor’s mother telling him or her? Or if the next door neighbor’s parent doesn’t (gasp!) want to talk to her child about vulvas yet (or ever, possibly). Not being a parent, I don’t quite know how I would handle it. Sounds like a messy situation all around. (That is the type of thought that makes me think “someday is a long ways away.”)

  6. Azkyroth says:

    Michelle:
    Can I admit that while I totally agree and love this, I haven’t yet taught my daugther “vulva”?In fact, I want to teach her, but everyone locally (at least, by what I can tell from the preschool terminology) teaches their girls that they have a vagina.And they do have a vagina (I’m presuming.)But if her vulva hurts when she pees, that’s not her “vagina hurting.”And so we refer generally to her bottom and if it hurts, pointing where, making sure she knows how to appropriately wipe with toilet paper, etc.Which is stupid.But I also know that if she goes to school and tells the other little girls gleefully that she has a vulva, there will be some awkward issues that come up with other parents.So I am frozen and a chicken.

    I found “girl parts” and “boy parts” as general terms resolved this matter pretty well until she started asking about pregnancy details, late in age 6, and I got several different age versions of the same series as “It’s Perfectly Normal” all of which she then found and poured through, referring to primarily as “the book about uteruses.”

  7. La Lubu says:

    Which is stupid. But I also know that if she goes to school and tells the other little girls gleefully that she has a vulva, there will be some awkward issues that come up with other parents. So I am frozen and a chicken.

    As a single mother, I was petrified of teaching my daughter anatomically-correct terms for her reproductive system (or the male reproductive system) at that age (toddler/preschool) because I thought that would be a red flag for daycare workers to call the authorities—automatically assume that she was being (or had been) sexually abused. I waited until she could speak clearly, in complete, detailed paragraphs, before teaching her anything other than private parts and boundaries. A happy kid shouting out “vulva” or “I have a vulva, he has a penis!!” is going to be interpreted differently coming from a kid typed as the “free-to-be-you-and-me” set, and coming from the kid with the unwed mother (who is automatically assumed to not be of the “free-to-be-you-and-me” persuasion…..or at least, that’s the way it works in my locale).

  8. Hannah says:

    This was fantastic – and hilarious! I was lucky enough to be raised in a very open environment (no question was ever out of bounds) and I look forward to trying to live up to that high standard when I have kids of my own.

  9. Erica says:

    What is it with young children and nipples? My son still thinks his are super awesome, at age 4, and is about as proud of them as he is his penis. Early on in toddlerhood, though, he had a day where he thought the nipples were a scab, started trying to pick them off, got freaked out because [duh] his nipples hurt, so started trying HARDER to take them off. :-\

    And then there was the time my daughter started talking about her brothers “poo-nis” — “you know, the part where the poo comes out of? because pee comes out the penis, so…”

    I’ve also found there’s a fine line between “comfortable in your body” and “walking around completely naked” — at five, we visited relatives, girl-child took a shower, and afterwards cheerfully breezed into the room sans clothing or towel to inform us she couldn’t find the comb for her hair. (Reactions ranged from amused to scandalized.) So we had a talk about respecting other people’s personal boundaries (this is GiGi’s home, not a nudist colony) and personal privacy; she took it fairly well, although I found it a little awkward like I kept flip-flopping from “certain parts of your body really should be covered in public” to “there’s nothing wrong with any of them” to “sometimes you just have to follow rules.” It also included “if anybody starts showing you their penis or vagina, you need to let me know.”

    My key goal is to help them both understand the complicated bits as they need to, using language that is more-or-less commonplace in the daycare/school settings they’ll be in, balancing accuracy with knowledge that toddlers have absolutely no filter on their brain-to-speech process. Balancing society and their best interests is an ongoing challenge.

    @Azkyroth — any other book title recommendations? :-)

  10. evil fizz says:

    We have constant conversations about privacy and boundaries. I was interested in your mention of her charging in on you – we basically have an open bathroom policy at home (for immediate family) and our daughter bathes with both of us.

    We’re working on getting her just to knock or ask if it’s okay to come in. If someone has closed a door (for whatever reason), you give them an opportunity to say that this is their space for the time being. We also will say that people have the right to ask to be alone and to ask for privacy and that respect for that is important. We’re pretty blase about actual nudity, and stick with a our family’s space/other family’s space distinction.

    WRT to kids sharing their knowledge and either having awkward conversations with neighbors or concerns about daycare thinking it’s a sign of sexual abuse, I think there’s always a fine line and it’s much easier to be on the right side of it when you’ve got other points of privilege to help back it up. I wouldn’t characterize us as “free to be you and me” sorts, but we definitely benefit from being a white, well-educated couple in this regard.

    Also, I think it’s a known hazard with all kinds of less loaded information too. I have definitely seen kids “helpfully” share things that they think are informational which other people think are insulting or embarrassing.

  11. chingona says:

    Erica: I’ve also found there’s a fine line between “comfortable in your body” and “walking around completely naked” — at five, we visited relatives, girl-child took a shower, and afterwards cheerfully breezed into the room sans clothing or towel to inform us she couldn’t find the comb for her hair. (Reactions ranged from amused to scandalized.) So we had a talk about respecting other people’s personal boundaries (this is GiGi’s home, not a nudist colony) and personal privacy; she took it fairly well, although I found it a little awkward like I kept flip-flopping from “certain parts of your body really should be covered in public” to “there’s nothing wrong with any of them” to “sometimes you just have to follow rules.” It also included “if anybody starts showing you their penis or vagina, you need to let me know.”

    This is something I’ve struggled with at times. We’ve always been fairly comfortable and open – and with only one bathroom, a certain lack of privacy is inevitable – and it can feel like you’re contradicting yourself or it can simply be hard to explain to them why one thing falls in one category and another thing falls in another category. On the lighter side of things, when my son was between two and three, we spent a lot of time reminding him that touching himself was a private thing, and he should go to his room to do it. Then one evening, I’m cooking dinner in the kitchen, he’s in the living room watching a show, and he walks into the kitchen (which is on the way to his bedroom) with his penis out of his pants and in his hand, and informs me that he’s going to his room because he wants to touch himself. So then I had to have another conversation with him about how, when you need privacy, you just ask for privacy, you don’t explain what you need the privacy for. And yet, of course I want him to tell me if someone else tries get private with him. And now he has younger girl cousins who are aware of their own bodies and a baby sister, so I’m trying to have these pre-emptive, healthy conversations about boundaries and respect, while he has no effin’ clue what I’m on about.

  12. Erin says:

    I have a daughter who’s almost four and a son who also just turned two. Needless to say, discussing of parts and nudity and appropriateness are just a part of life in our house. My daughter thinks she had a penis when she was a baby because her brother has a penis, and she thinks he will grow a vagina when he gets big. We’ve done what we can to reduce talking about parts in public, while at the same time encouraging exploration in private. Encouraging sounds like the wrong word, actually—like we’re saying “go into your room and get to know your vulva and clitoris!”; in actuality, it’s more like “it’s absolutely fine and good to explore, let’s just do it in your room so you’ll have some privacy.”

    My husband has lately been very cognizant of nudity and our children. He’ll shower without a moment’s pause with our son in the room, but is not comfortable being naked around our daughter anymore. We’ve taught her to knock and wait until given the “all clear” to come in. I grew up in a “naked” house with all women, so nudity for me is not such a big deal. Plus, my son is still breastfeeding, so when he sees me naked there’s only one thing he notices anyway.

    I have worried in the past that our relaxed, answer all questions approach to sexuality may be greeted with some raised eyebrows (at the very least) because we live in the deep, deep South. I suppose we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. I think OP’s assertion that privilege helps in this regard is correct. If our daughter started talking about her vagina, her teachers, knowing us and our education, professions, etc, would most likely just tell her it wasn’t appropriate for school and move on, rather than being worried something was happening at home.

    My son is going through a belly button phase right now (of course, the penis love is ever present, though). Whenever he sees a belly button he lifts his shirt to show his and than lists all the people he knows with belly buttons.

  13. chingona says:

    Spilt Milk: at her daycare they call it a ‘bottom’ (what??) and so that’s what she says sometimes.

    My niece was taught to call it her bottom (front bottom and back bottom), and one time I took her into the bathroom with me at some event or other, and when she caught a glimpse as I was pulling up my pants, she said, loudly, “Your bottom looks like my mommy’s.” Though, I’m not sure subbing in the word vulva makes that any less embarrassing for me in terms of the other people in the restroom at the time.

  14. Michelle says:

    @Azkyrith– Good idea on the books. Thanks for the recommendation.

    My little one is approaching 4 and will be able to understand more terminology soon. I’m happy to teach it to her. I just had a problem teaching her all of that anatomy is her vagina when that was inaccurate, and she will flatly tell me “Ms. Teacher says this is a vagina.” And I have said that there are lots of different names for different parts of her body there, and she does have a vagina. She has lots of other body parts too.

    Thanks for raising this at a time where I realize I can probably offer more complete information soon. I also realize that we have been rather lax about any discussion of privacy at 3.5. Sigh. Trying to teach your kids well, not scar them for life, and fit somehow in the local parenting standards of “acceptable lessons” is really a tightrope sometimes.

  15. Many moons ago when my oldest son was a little one, I was teaching him the proper names for parts, but with his little guy lisp he got said it a bit oddly. While boys touched their penises, he was sure that girls touched their Volvos.

  16. Matt says:

    When I was little I thought everyone had a penis, since I didn’t know any better. I feel like kids are more open about things than adults, but this may be a bias, based on my personal circumstances, ie my extended family does not talk about these things, as far as I am aware, and I know that most of my friends would just laugh if a little kid walked around naked or shouted something about their vulva, but the older people I know would certainly freak out. One time when I was watching like, parenthood, or modern family, they were doing the masturbation talk episode, and I could swear I heard my mother say you would go blind at one point. At that moment I was glad my parents hadn’t tried to teach me anything about sexuality.

  17. Aphie says:

    My 3 year old will occasionally decide to check who has a penis (like him) amongst the people that we know. He tends to assume everyone has one, as Matt says. His wondering may occur in the form of asking me, or asking people directly.
    My In-Laws were part scandalised, part amused but I intervened and answered him matter of factly and I don’t think there’s any permanent mental scarring on their parts (tongue in cheek). They’re secretly a little bit hippy, anyway. ;)

    The mis-naming of body parts makes me feel a bit cranky whenever I hear it, now. I associate it with a culture so ashamed of the cis-woman’s body in general that it’s too awful to consider there may be anything other than a hole for a penis “down there”.

  18. Stephanie says:

    Little kids crack me up about body parts. My oldest used to shout out “Look! Breastes!” (spelling intentional, that’s how she pronounced it) every time we passed the bra department in a store. My youngest is pretty much weaned at age 2.5, but absolutely adores my breasts as toys. Once every few weeks she comes up with a desperate need to nurse for some reason, but the rest of the time, it’s all silliness, and she’s quite aware that she has breasts too.

    The funniest has to be that my sister-in-law used to call my oldest daughter “peanut” until the day my daughter came up to me and asked me why her aunt called her that because it was a strange thing to call a girl. She thought her aunt was calling her “penis.”

  19. Miss S says:

    Evil Fizz, it sounds like you’re doing a great job with your daughter. I really think that a mother’s body image has a bigger impact on their daughers than people realize. My mom has never suffered from low confidence/esteem and poor body image. I’ve never heard her complain about gaining 5 pounds, or being fat, etc. (The only exception is when she’s PMSing, and even then she blames her jeans- “These stupid jeans fit last week!”)

    I think that’s a large reason why I’ve never really struggled with it.

    Also, I think placing emphasis on what bodies do is a great tool to build positive body image. After I started taking dance, yoga, cheerleading, etc my already positive body image increased, and so did my confidence. I think it’s been documented that girls who are involved in phsyical activity have higher levels of self esteem.

    LOL @ the vulva story.

  20. dcardona says:

    I have a curious 4.5-year-old daughter. It’s great to hear her explain matter-of-factly that her vulva is made of her mons and labia. Recently she added clitoris to the repertoire. Thankfully, she hasn’t really asked what it’s for. I’m still figuring out an age-appropriate response. Currently I’m leaning toward, “That’s just how you’re made,” with a promise to revisit it when she’s a “big kid.”

    Now that she has a 9-month-old sister she is becoming more interested in the vagina (thinking about the birth and seeing the diaper changes), wanting to see pictures in books. I refused to show her mine, though she’s asked! She loves for me to draw diagrams of her body’s inner workings and I worry a visitor to my home will find one for the reproductive system in the couch. LOL

    If another parent was angry at me for the terminology, I would just shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, isn’t that what it’s really called?” Which, BTW, was my response to my mother when she was horrified that I didn’t pass on the curious term “BB.”

  21. Jackie says:

    I hope your daughter also knows, that there is no wrong body size. That being fat or thin should not matter as to a person’s values, or morals. That all people deserve dignity, and that a person who teases a person about their body size should not under any circumstances.

  22. evil fizz: Also, I think it’s a known hazard with all kinds of less loaded information too. I have definitely seen kids “helpfully” share things that they think are informational which other people think are insulting or embarrassing.

    When I was 4 or 5, I got into a fight with a friend and told her that Santa Claus didn’t exist. >_<

  23. Shoshie says:

    CURSE YOU CHROME AUTOCOMPLETE.

  24. Kristen J. says:

    One of the reasons I’m no longer asked to babysit the kidlets in my family is that one of my adorable 5 year old relatives asked what *those* were (referring to the nipples on her infant brother) and I answered “nipples.” Not realizing that “nipples” is apparently a taboo word that should never be spoken. Oops.

  25. Erica says:

    Jackie:
    I hope your daughter also knows, that there is no wrong body size. That being fat or thin should not matter as to a person’s values, or morals. That all people deserve dignity, and that a person who teases a person about their body size should not under any circumstances.

    This is a point that’s very much worth bringing up. My daughter is thin, indeed, underweight; I’m overweight. So we have an in-built family structure that gives us opportunities to talk about the many different sizes and shapes people may have, and how “skinny” doesn’t automatically mean “healthier” and certainly not “better”!

    Shoshie: When I was 4 or 5, I got into a fight with a friend and told her that Santa Claus didn’t exist.>_<

    The number of arguments my Jewish daughter has had with Christian children (AND adults!) about Santa Claus… oy! Dealing with body accuracy is almost easy in comparison :-)

  26. Suze says:

    I love this conversation. I am a medical person. I believe in using correct anatomical terms for everything. My children often freak out pregnant women friends/aquaintances by turning to me during a conversation about the pregnancy and stating, “Mommy! She has a BABY in her UTERUS!” Why that should be freaky to people is a little beyond me, but I enjoy it.

    In the bathtub, my little boy is reminded each time to “Please retract your foreskin now and rinse out your penis.” How the heck would I explain to him otherwise what he needed to do as part of his regular bath?

    My little girl, now 3, likes to have her “vulva time” (her term) by herself sometimes. And I can’t stop laughing over the fact that, although she knows the word “clitoris”, she decided instead that she would routinely term that part of her body her “vulva penis”.

  27. Carole says:

    My daughter is now 6 and she has known/used the word vulva since she was about 2 as well. I have explained to her that other people might call it a vagina, but that that is actually the inside part (I drew a simple picture – and since then used books (“Amazing You” and, lately, “My Mom’s Having a Baby”). She once told kids at daycare that vagina was not really the right word, and started to tell them the difference between inside and outside. A lttitle awkward? Yes. But totally worth it as it has completeing empowered her to know her body and how it works.

  28. Tamara says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with this approach. I have 2 girls, 2 and 4 years old. We are all happy to be naked around eachother and we teach the correct anatomical terms. This does of course cause lots of hilarity. When 4 was younger she used sippy cups with valves so she called her vulva a “valva”. We’re trying to train her out of that!

    Now she uses the word all the time, even when it’s not correct, eg “I’m holding this [whatever] between my vulva and walking!”. Um, between your thighs is actually more correct, but not as interesting I guess. The 2 year old says “vulva” too but insists I cover mine up at the moment, she doesn’t like it for some reason!

    The two of them often play nonsense word games, which almost always end up using “vulva” at full volume. It can happen in public, which is a bit awkward. 4’s best friend comes from a lovely family who don’t use anatomical words…

    2 keeps mixing up “penis” and “peanut”. As in, “so and so has a peanut!”.

    I am still nursing so my breasts are still “milks” to the 2 year old. “I’m having this milk..now that milk” etc.

    Privacy is indeed tricky. 4 only wants privacy when she’s pooing, other than that doesn’t get the concept and neither does 2. Very hard to get that idea through to them.

    My girls are jewish too. 4 knows SC isn’t real although like to pretend he is. But I have asked her to be careful with people who think he is and not tell him he’s not. With body parts I don’t give a toss.

    My girls have started gym. For now it’s great for their body awareness and enjoyment. I will have to keep an eye on that in the future though, as women’s gymnastics is creepy at the elite level.

  29. ElleDee says:

    One time I was playing with my three-year-old niece who was over with her family for a visit. I was sitting at one end of our couch while she gleefully jumped from the opposite end into my arms, again and again. I have rather, shall we say, prominent breasts, and after jumping into me she yelled, “HAHA! I touched your boobies!”. Then as she climbed back to the opposite end of the couch she proudly proclaimed, “I have a vagina” (pronounced more like “ba-gina”). I replied with “you sure do” or something like that, but she continued to sing “vagina, vagina” happily. My clearly embarrassed brother-in-law asked her to stop. I thought it was pretty funny and I don’t see a reason to be shocked when children say innocent things like that. It just shows healthy curiosity and joy in their newly acquired knowledge about themselves.

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