How Words Hurt Kids: What Happens When Slang Replaces Truth

Recently, I read something on Facebook that made me wince...

An aunt was helping her young niece in the shower. She reminded her to wash the whole body, including her vagina*. The niece responded, "where's my vagina?". The aunt pointed, asking "what do you call that?". The niece, following her gesture, said, "my lady parts."

Haha! We can all laugh about that, right?

But should we?

There are many reasons parents choose not to use the real names of body parts. Discussing sex or basic reproductive functions can feel daunting. Religion may also influence parenting choices. And no matter how we identify or what our current values are, we can never quite get away from how our parents raised us. Messages we learned as kids about the body influences our decisions today. "Boobs", "lady parts" and "hoo-hah" are pretend, slang. At some point, though, reality catches up with pretend and the effects are broader than you'd think.

While sometimes funny in the moment, slang is dangerous for kids.

Incorrect language can make kids look and feel stupid. Some of their peers know something that they don't. Those kids know what a vagina is and likely what it does. Knowledge is power; it's social cache, on and off the playground. Not being in the know can lead to feelings of insecurity and fear. These are not the feelings we want to cultivate, especially if we want to keep kids safe. Kids who are confident in their knowledge and trust their parents to protect and inform them are harder to coerce or groom.

Using slang also secretizes something. Slang is code that not everyone knows. "That's excluding!" my four year old would say. She's right. Secrets involve excluding some information from other people. She knows excluding doesn't feel good or safe. But she doesn't know that secrets shrinks people. Not only uncomfortable, a secret makes people smaller, and feel less capable than they are. Kids are especially susceptible to the dangers of secrets. They lack the agency of adults and often can't understand the potential impact behind secret keeping. Nothing about kids' bodies should be made secret. Privacy or "private areas" okay; secrets are not.

Ignorance and smallness are big deals but there's more. Slang reduces the female body into something not deserving of respect. If a girl uses the same slang ("boobs") that she sees someone else use to catcall or mock, she will associate her body with something less than.

Why give the body respect if we don't even use the correct names to describe it?

As a commodity, a thing, a woman's body is more easy to control. This is even more true of black women whose bodies are often fetishized in ways that white women's bodies are not.  Control looks like chopped parts in advertising. It looks like a multi-billion industry (and public health crisis) built on violence against women. It sounds like pregnant women being called "hosts" and presents as husbands being able to sue their wives for an abortion. Everyone loses when the female body is controlled and reduced.

"But my kiddo is in Kindergarten, surely this isn't an issue for her?"

Think again.

"More than half of girls and one-third of boys as young as 6 to 8 think their ideal weight is thinner than their current size,". That's a huge percentage of kids in the early years of their schooling. These kids, little children, worry about their weight. Why?

Because even at 6, kids can recognize what a "desirable" body looks like.  And when these kids look in their own mirror, they don't see it.

This isn't middle school; these kids are 1st and 2nd graders.

Kids, in many ways, become more vulnerable as they get older. They may not be as easy to trick but they are more aware of what the world expects them to know and how they "should" be (thin) or behave (diet). (Poor children, children of color or kids suffering from trauma often have even more challenges.) We need kids, especially girls, to feel self-confident and hang onto that confidence. Body image is not something kids are born with; it is learned. We must help kids love and appreciate their bodies. 

Here are four things you can do:

1) Use the right language to describe body parts...yours and theirs. Picking and choosing the correct body parts to use ("vulva" but not "breasts") is confusing. Even if it feels uncomfortable, use these correct words.

2) Normalize conversations around sexuality with kids. When they ask, tell them. Sex is nothing to hide away or feel shamed about. When you talk openly, kids know to go to you, not porn or other kids, for information.

3) Watch your language about your own body. Kids take cues from parents modeling when they are newborns. Negative self-talk including your weight are no exception. 

3) Help kids know what their body is valued for. It's not for cuteness or hotness but for strength, capability, doing good in the world. Telling them that you noticed their strong legs when they were swimming. Or how hard they were working to pass the ball to a teammate. Allow kids to see that you notice their efforts also helps develop a growth mindset.

Slang hurts everyone. But it can immobilize kids. Slang keeps kids small and stupid while also perpetuating the confusing Catch-22 of both disposability and idealization of certain female bodies.

Use the right language. Start now. Do it today.

*for this story, I am going to use the language that the aunt used, not the correct terms.