Vocabulary Lessons in Body Autonomy


Vocabulary is not just a worksheet that comes home from school. It comes in all areas of life and is so important in teaching kids who they are and how to be safe:

“So, Regina rhymes with vagina?” one of my boys asked while looking at a map of Canada.

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“Hmmm. Are there any cities or places that rhyme with penis?” He looked at his brothers.

“Venus!” They answered.

Vagina. Penis. We say all the vocabulary words at our house. We always have. Breasts and testicles are said in the same tone of voice as cerebellum and patella. Since my kids were little, I wanted them to know that all body parts have anatomical names. Sure, we toss around the more common jargon sometimes, because how can you have boys and not hear all those words too. But as someone who studied science and spent many hours in the anatomy and physiology lab, I felt it was important to teach my kids the real names for all their body parts for many reasons.

First, I want my kids to be comfortable with saying anything in our house. Kids are naturally curious so no question is off limits. Sometimes there is giggling over a funny sounding word or if it’s the name for what my kids deem as a funny body part (who knew epiglottis made people crack up), but most anatomical names are viewed just like spelling words whether they relate to private parts or not. Vocabulary is vocabulary. And that leads to good questions and good discussions, such as how a placenta actually gets food to the baby and then what happens to it after that baby is born. Using real words is helpful for describing these details of life.

Second, I want to convey to my children that they are sole owners of their body, from the top of their heads to the tips of their toes. When one of my twins was in preschool he insisted on knowing the name of the part of his ankle that he caught on his bike pedal: medial malleolus. Once I told him, he then started to cry big tears about his medial mall-o-lus needing a band-aid. And I gladly got him one because body autonomy is vital to well-being. He owned that injury. I often say we have one body and every choice we make for it should be ours alone.

And lastly, I want them to know anatomical names for their own safety. As a peer educator while in college, I learned, that one of the best ways to prevent sexual abuse in children was to help them know the proper vocabulary for private parts. If a kid learns the names for the areas covered by their swimsuit, they can be more aware of their body. In I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou reflects on being raped as a child by a family friend but not understanding what was happening to her. She could describe how her “legs” hurt but did not have any knowledge or the words beyond that. It’s heartbreaking to read as a parent, but it propelled me to teach and protect my kids the best I can.

Body vocabulary, body autonomy, and body safety all go hand in hand. Whether our children are little or big, teaching kids about their bodies is so important.