“Head, and shoulders, navel and vulva, knees and toes, knees and toes…”
Yep, you read that right: VULVA. My partner and I have chosen to change the words to this popular children’s song for our children, and we include the word “penis” when singing it with our son. Sometimes we sing it the traditional way if we’re at a playdate with new friends, or having a big group sing-a-long, but for the most part, we have good reason to stick to our updated lyrics.
My kids are one-and-a-half and three years old, and they giggle when they sing this song — but that’s not because of our anatomical additions. See, they haven’t yet learned to feel embarrassed about their genitalia, and I sincerely hope they never do. Normalizing the proper names for their anatomy- vulva, vagina, clitoris, anus, penis, scrotum, testicles- is one way my family promotes healthy relationships with our bodies. Creating a body-positive household can help our kids develop greater self-esteem while reducing the likelihood of eating disorders and mental health challenges, but it’s also part of my family’s sexual abuse prevention strategy.
Over the last three years, reaching a crescendo as the #metoo movement breaks our collective hearts, I’ve been pouring over statistics and resources related to keeping my kids safe. Part of this is helping them be as comfortable naming their 'private parts' as they are their elbows or noses. While it has definitely resulted in some distasteful looks from parents when we’re out in public, my kids’ safety is four million times more important than my public image.
My children might seem young for this kind of language. But the University of Alberta’s Peter Silverstone says “there isn’t such a thing as too early.” Silverstone, a researcher of child sexual abuse, notes that “Tragically, child sexual abuse is very common in North America with as many as one in six girls and one in 12 boys currently experiencing sexual abuse involving bodily contact.”
It’s so hard to talk about. I know I’d rather not even think about it. But as one parent’s terrible and important story notes, we must “imagine the unimaginable,” if we want to have a chance of preventing child sexual abuse. Parents of young children don’t have to feel powerless. We need to take our heads out of the proverbial sand and realize that we have the tools to to keep our most vulnerable family members safe.
Our family’s simple change to Head and Shoulders is an example of one of the most basic abuse prevention strategies. As Dr. Donna Mathews says, “recent research shows that knowing the correct anatomical terms enhances kids’ body image, self-confidence, and openness. It also discourages their susceptibility to molesters. When children are abused, having the correct language helps both the child and adults deal with disclosure and — if necessary — the forensic interview process.”
There is a fine line to walk, of course. Mathews points out that a child should be equally comfortable with these parts of their bodies, but should also be keenly aware that they are different in the most important of ways. Aside from washing, cleaning, or medical appointments with a parent or trusted caregiver present, these body parts are private. We also like reminding our kids in our family, we don’t do 'secrets,' but rather 'surprises.' If anyone ever asks them to keep a secret, they should come to us — and they’d never, ever get in trouble for that.
It’s also worth mentioning that as adults, we might need some extra education as well. I used to work at for an organization promoting healthy sexuality, and I was shocked by the number of fully grown people who didn’t know the difference between a vagina and a vulva (Cole’s Notes: vulva = what can be seen from the outside, vagina = inside). All parents, even if they’re not the same sex as their children, should be using the proper anatomical terms. Our comfort and openness talking about our bodies can send a powerful message to our children: we can handle these conversations, you can come to us with questions if you feel nervous or unsure, and we are your safe place.
Most of us were not educated in this more body-positive, language-savvy way, but we can break the cycle. Empowering ourselves to use the correct language, teaching the difference between secrets and surprises, and helping our kids develop healthy boundaries around private parts can make all the difference to our children. Feel free to use our updated song, too — and feel confident in your choices when you get strange looks at playgroup.
Here are some extra resources: