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Should Children Be Taught What Private Body Parts Are?

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ANATOMY EDUCATION
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A few decades ago, a good friend of mine went to St. Vincent to visit her new in-laws. It turned out that this family, although warm and welcoming, was very proper. They used what my friend later learned were some rather odd circumlocutions. She told me that they had very good manners.

In their first week visiting, my friend and her new husband decided to hike up La Sourfriere, the country's spectacular volcano. On the way down, she slipped on the volcanic rock, landing on her posterior, which was badly scraped.

They hobbled back to the family's home where my friend and her husband, a doctor, saw to her wounds and bruises. The pain and discomfort were significant so she decided to go to bed for the rest of the day. The following morning, she arose for breakfast to be greeted by her father-in-law who asked her, "How is your foot?"

Puzzled, she attempted to explain that her feet were perfectly fine. It was another part of her anatomy that had been injured. Her father-in-law was very embarrassed and found a way to leave the room. What my friend discovered was that "foot" referred to pretty much any body part above the knees but below the waist. There simply were no acceptable words to use to ask after her buttocks and thighs.

My husband and I thought about this story when we learned that certain children at Thorncliffe Park Public School would be taught that they have "private body parts" rather than penises and vaginas. I guess that means that boys and girls are all the same below the waist at Thorncliffe Park. How is that going to work?

If we fail to teach them about their bodies, are we denying them something to which they have a right?

In an effort to accommodate the families that have removed their children from school rather than expose them to sex education, the principal has a very difficult job. How should he balance his genuine concern for the well-being of children who clearly want and need an education with the demands of their families to withhold part of that education from them?

These families love their children. They believe it is in their best interests to be protected from the proper names of their body parts. Schools and curricula are designed to be in the best interests of educating children. The curriculum includes the proper names for genitalia. But is anyone asking the children what they would like to learn? Would it matter if they did?

Freedom of expression is a two-way street. It includes the freedom to express your thoughts and views, as well as the freedom to hear and listen to the thoughts and views of others. But how will a child know what she wants to learn if she has never learned that such a subject exists? Can we ask children who have been raised never to discuss sex what it is they would like to know?

It is a little like asking someone who has never seen print, much less a book, if they are interested in learning to read. Does the question even have meaning in such a case? Except here, all children have bodies. If we fail to teach them about their bodies, are we denying them something to which they have a right?

It is not hard to imagine how ignorance of the names of body parts could be seriously problematic in cases of sexual abuse or where a doctor needs to know what hurts.

It is not hard to imagine how ignorance of the names of body parts could be seriously problematic in cases of sexual abuse or where a doctor needs to know what hurts.

I expect that adults in St. Vincent know the names of their body parts. I do not believe that my friend's father-in-law thought that her injured part was actually called a "foot." However, he had what his culture considered to be good manners. And manners are a matter of culture. If one culture says that people don't discuss certain topics, should another culture say that is wrong, improper or an abuse of children?

It is not hard to imagine how ignorance of the names of body parts could be seriously problematic in cases of sexual abuse or where a doctor needs to know what hurts. If a child refers to his or her "private parts," it could mean anything. After all, some people are taught that private parts are the parts of the body normally covered by a bathing suit.

And there are many different sorts of bathing suits. Would private parts include a child's belly or chest? Could the children who knows no other language differentiate between their genitalia and their anus? It might be very important to know the difference.

But it might be equally important for families to teach children to be polite and acceptable members of their cultures. Could children learn the proper names for body parts, but also learn where and when to use those words?

A basic education demands knowledge. A family demands certain behaviour. Is it really so hard to provide both?

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