Penis Isn’t a Dirty Word

There is nothing shameful about our bodies, so why do we teach our children otherwise?

My fifteen month old, David, and I were visiting with my family recently, and by “visiting with my parents,” I mean that he was running around on his spindly little legs wearing only a long shirt and no diaper. Several minutes into the fun, we took a break to show off David’s knowledge of body parts. Nose? Check. Mouth? Check. Hands? Double check. Everything was going fine until we got to the body part that David had learned most recently…penis. When David pointed to his penis (I’ll be honest, it was more of a grope than a point), my parents and sister made pained noises and my mother said, “Don’t teach him that. Why did you teach him that?”

If you’ve spent any time around an infant, then you know that they can be very interested in their genitals from the very moment that their diapers come off and they realize that there’s something down there. My family’s response to David’s familiarity with his penis is representative of a wider discomfort that people feel with children’s reproductive organs and, to a greater degree, children’s sexuality. It’s not just that we don’t want to see kids being sensual, no one is disturbed (and some people think that it’s adorable) when my son strokes his own hair and eyelashes when he’s falling asleep. We want to think of children as innocent and asexual, but having a healthy interest in your body, especially the parts that feel good, is completely normal. It’s natural for kids – boys and girls – to touch themselves, rub up against things, and talk about their genitals.

♦◊♦

My wife and I have a very specific policy for talking about body parts, even though our son is still far too young to understand it. Here’s what happens: At some point during a bath or diaper change, David decides that it would be a good idea to check out his penis. I say, “That’s your penis. It’s part of your body and you can do whatever you like with it in private.” When David gets older, we’ll still need to do the hard work of defining “public” and “private,” but that’s our basic approach. Our theory is that if we talk to him about his body and sexuality all along, even when he can’t understand it, then we’ll all be more comfortable talking about it when things get weird and awkward during puberty.

We (meaning Americans) might think that we’re a mature, cosmopolitan culture, but deep down our personal, social, and religious values are heavily influenced by our country’s Puritan past. Sex and genitalia are associated with shame, embarrassment, and – in some cases – guilt, but there are important reasons to talk to children about their bodies. A child who knows about their body and is not ashamed to talk about it is safer than a child who is ignorant or embarrassed about their body. It is natural for people, including children, to hide their shame, but this tendency makes them more likely to keep sexual abuse secret. This vulnerability is exaggerated by our irrational avoidance of the words “penis” and “vagina.” Parents use words like pee-pee, who-ha, goober, ding-a-ling, and fanny, but each of these cutesy words creates opportunities for people to ignore serious situations. When we hear a child say, “He touched my doodle,” we’re much more likely to dismiss it than if the same child said, “He touched my vagina.” More generally, it can’t be healthy for children to receive messages from birth that their body parts are disgusting or shameful. At best, these feelings make honest and open conversations about sexuality awkward, and at worst they form the basis for later sexual anxiety and dysfunction. So, the next time you see a baby make a grab for his penis, take a deep breath and say, “Yep, that’s your penis!”

A quick note to my son, David. Although you probably won’t be ashamed of your body, you will definitely be ashamed of the things that I write about you. The internet is forever, but so is my love for you.

—Photo catalinaaa/Flickr

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About Nicholaus Noles

Nicholaus Noles is a father, writer, and developmental psychologist with a Ph.D. from Yale University. He writes about children, toys, child development, parenting, and video games.

Comments

  1. Damn – we have to wait… what? ….maybe another 20 years until David let’s us all know if it worked! P^)

  2. This has been pretty much our approach too. The other day our five-year-old got on the toilet just as I was about to try to get his little brother to try to pee. When I said I wished he would have waited for his brother to go first, he said “How would I know he had to pee? I can’t read his penis!”
    On a more relevant note, I was sort of shocked when the pediatrician told the five-year-old he needed to examine his “pee-pee.” I guess using real words really isn’t the generally accepted practice.

  3. natureartist says:

    I agree with you that that it is a good idea for children to grow up not seeing their private areas as a subject of shame and secrets. I grew up in a time when I didn’t even know the penis had a name until I was in 7th grade. I just find it ironic that we want to spend so much time telling little boys that the penis is nothing to be ashamed of, but we tell grown men that the penis is “junk”. Too many grown men see their own bodies, even the penis, as something unattractive. We see the male body as a subject of comedy, as something utilitarian, and anything but beautiful as opposed to women. Too many women fall into this same indoctrination. I do hope that one day the little boy who has been taught not to be ashamed of all his body parts, can become the man who will feel just as proud of his entire grown body.

  4. Kudos, Nicholas. :)
    For your integrity as a parent, and for this article.

    While my parents weren’t especially prude or repressive, there was a sense of awkwardness around sexuality in my house. And I did a lot of work, afterwards, to get rid of all the moralistic junk I have received.
    Yet, at almost 50, sometimes there’s still some anger coming up about that conditioning. :|
    It takes nothing to say something dumb to a child, but he might take it with him for a very long time.

  5. I’m in agreement with you Nicholaus. About calling all body parts by their rightful name. I don’t think though that I would go as far as to say “you can do whatever you want with your penis/vagina”. Anymore then I would say, “you can do whatever you want with your hands/eyes/feet.” Some things should be for self discovery and by singling out the penis or vagina to such a degree, that might also inadvertently teach them that their sexual parts are much more special and important then any other body part and give them a right of privilage where that’s concerned. I don’t know. That’s just my personal thoughts on it.

    I will also add on that parents also need to have age appriopate conversations with their children about sex and sexuality that reaches beyond our body parts and dips into how to treat another person or their own feelings and emotions that come into play when it comes to sex. Along with the media that is going to send them many messages about sex. The conversation needs to be a continuous one throughout their adolesence. Not just the standard “birds and bees” talk.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] body parts is big, and families tackle it differently. I am on similar ground to the author of this post. However, his focus is on boys who I think are given more leeway to explore their body than girls. [...]

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