Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Tzivi came home from preschool and told her mom that her Morah had gotten upset at her that day.
“Morah said I used a bad word. But I didn’t know it was a bad word. We were playing a game and I sat down too fast. I yelled out: ‘ow! I hurt my tushy!’ and Morah called me out of the game and told everyone we’re not allowed to say bad words in school. But I told her in our house tushy isn’t a bad word.”
Many parents and educators believe that teaching and allowing children to use the names of their private parts is inappropriate. (“Tushy” being one of the more benign and less sensitive terms, for the record.) But avoiding or forbidding words for any part of the body conveys a message that it’s not ok to recognize or communicate about these parts of ourselves and that policy can cause serious problems.
The most severe and notable problems are children lacking vocabulary and confidence to come to caregivers with problems- such as medical concerns or unsafe touch, and therefore not getting them addressed. Some kids will suffer from infections or physical problems because they are too embarrassed to tell a parent or doctor that something feels or looks wrong with their genitals. Even more tragically, many predators take advantage of this talking taboo, by telling their victims: “You know you’re not allowed to talk about this with anyone, right?” And if kids have been taught that private parts are bad words, forbidden topics, then the abuse can continue. This should be reason enough to override the reluctance to educate, but there are more too:
Two of the common sexual problems people struggle with are: sexual repression, and sexual preoccupation:
Sexual repression problems come out when individuals have developed an excessive level of inhibition, shame, or disassociation from their sexual selves. Such people may feel proud or glad that they don’t “suffer” from the “common human sexual sin temptations” but often that becomes a problem when they do want to engage in adult sexual relationships, and can’t turn the feelings on. They often feel very uncomfortable in their bodies and touching others, feeling that there is something wrong, dirty, or unholy about anything sexual. So many of my couples therapy clients suffer from a sexual desire discrepancy, in which one spouse developed sexual repression, and has little or no desire for intimate pleasure. This often creates marital conflict and personal distress for both parties.
Sexual preoccupation, at the other end of the spectrum, is the tendency to overthink about sexual thoughts. This can begin in adolescence or even childhood, when a young person develops a natural and healthy curiosity about sexual feelings and information. Ideally, these questions should be safe for kids to ask parents for honest reassurance, information, validation, and integration. But a child who has these thoughts, feelings, sensations, and questions, and is given the message that we are not allowed to discuss such things, will either repress (as discussed above) or obsess: begin overthinking, talking, or researching matters on their own. The “forbidden fruit” quality to this sort of engagement can mushroom into misguided, inappropriate, or dangerous levels of information-seeking, ruminating, or experimentation. When kids are deprived of this information, they also are at higher risk for disrespecting their own bodies or others, and of either being exploited or exploiting others with unwanted touch. Knowledge empowers them to set crucial boundaries- for themselves and vis-a-vis others.
Homes and communities where private body parts and sexual phenomena are completely omitted from any education, tend to generate both repression and obsession- a preoccupation with either avoiding or over-seeking sexual stimulation, and sometimes a confusing see-saw between both. Conversely, homes and communities where information is shared respectfully, honestly, and with an emphasis on both safety and body positivity, are equipping kids to develop a mature, balanced approach to their sexual safety and future physical intimacy.
Kids and teens will and should develop sexually, whether or not we discuss or acknowledge it. Avoiding use of words for genitals or sexual sensation, communicates that we’d best deny our bodies and the way we feel in and about them. Until it’s too late. On the flip side, teaching our kids biologically accurate terms for all body parts, as well as boundaries and context for what happens with them, empowers them towards better safety, understanding, and a healthier sexual future.
*Many parents who hear these ideas respond that they recognize the logic in better sexual education, but that they lack the comfort level or knowledge to educate their kids appropriately. There is no need to reinvent the wheel- there are some wonderful books and online resources for this. In the coming months, I am planning to launch a digital course, titled: “Sacred, Not Secret: A Religious Parent’s Guide to Healthy, Holy, Sexual Education.” The objective of this course is to provide a comprehensive framework, including parent education, real life dialogue examples, and detailed explanations, to make you the primary and healthy source of this content for your family, while honoring your religious values.