Talking about anatomy with a preschooler

Sean and I have always used the scientific words for certain body parts when talking with E. There are reasons for this.

For one thing, we both know that personally, we would feel like tools if we used words like winkie and hoo-ha or whatever. (This is why I never got the immensely popular “Once Upon A Potty” book for E – lots of parents love this book and find it incredibly helpful, and I’m glad for you if you did… but I got to the part where it said Joshua had “a Pee-Pee for making Wee-Wee” and I was like, HELL NO. No one can make me read that aloud.)

For another, I’ve been privy to a few discussions in the staffroom among teachers working on “touching units” (i.e. learning about bodies, good touch/bad touch, sexuality) who have discovered that many of the younger kids don’t actually recognize the official words for things – they don’t know that what they have is called a penis or vagina.

It’s not that I judge parents who use cuter terms than, say, scrotum – since there’s nothing cute about that word at all. I understand the urge to use words that are more fun, but I guess I’d rather that we, the parents, be the ones to introduce the anatomical terms, rather than the Grade 1 teacher. Plus, there are countless terms if you’re going to use slang – how do you pick?

Also, it makes for some funny conversations – awkward, but funny. These words just sound comical, coming from a three-year-old mouth. It’s even funnier when you combine it with a three-year-old’s perception of how anatomy works.

When he learned that he had a penis, he assumed everyone had one – and why wouldn’t he? We all have eyes and knees and bellybuttons, so it only makes sense. He asked me, “Mummy, where’s your penis?” I explained that girls and women have vaginas instead. He was a bit mystified as to how a person can pee without a penis (since it does seem like a logical instrument to use). I’ve told him that when his baby sister is born, he’ll see the difference.

We’ve also had some conversations about nudity, and how it’s great if he wants to be naked at home, but when we’re at the park, we wear clothes. We did discreetly help him into and out of his swimsuit at splash pads and wading parks this summer, of course, but that was it. Once, when he started to resist getting his underwear back on, we asked him, “Remember why it’s important to wear underwear at the park?” He came up with an answer that made sense, even if it missed the point about public nudity (or keeping your voice down): “To protect my scrotum!!

Of course, my pregnancy has brought up lots of interesting thoughts and questions. He knows the baby is in my belly – he has felt her move, especially with hiccups. He sweetly brings his “caterpillar phone” (a little Baby Einstein device that plays snippets of classical music with flashing lights) and puts the speaker against my abdomen so she can hear it.

He knows she is growing, and has noticed that I’ve grown, as well. The other day, on a trip to the big potty (he still uses his little one most of the time, but likes to branch out occasionally) he saw that our toilet seat has a small crack in it (our bathroom just gets more sketchy all the time, sigh) and asked why. I said, “Well, we sit on it all the time. We put our weight on it, and we weigh a lot, so eventually it just cracked.”

“Yeah,” he responded, “Just like your belly!”

While I was digesting the aptness of this analogy – my belly taking more and more weight until it would “crack” – he continued, “Mama, your belly is humongous. I mean, it’s really huge!” Yep, thanks. I saw that too, kid.

I like to think that our layered pregnancy puzzle, given to E as a gift during the last pregnancy, might have been helpful in clarifying what’s going on.

pregnant mother layer puzzle

He is also dealing with the knowledge that this pregnancy thing will never happen to him, because he’s a boy.

E (as we are winding up playing with vehicles in the living room): Mama, you be the school bus and I’ll be the ambulance.

Me: Sweetie, I have to go eat lunch.

E: But don’t go eat! [Favourite argument in any situation: “But, don’t!”]

Me: Remember, I have to eat so your baby sister can eat. [We’ve talked about how I “share” my food with her, how she gets the nutrients through the umbilical cord, and that’s going to form her bellybutton.]

E (pause): Mama, I want to have a baby and I want it to be in MY tummy!

Me: Oh, buddy. You know what? I’m afraid you’re never going to have a baby in your tummy.

E: Why not?

Me: Well, boys don’t have babies in their tummies, ever.

E: Why don’t they?

Me: They don’t have the right parts. You have to have a uterus.

E (thinks this over): Then who has uteruses??

Me: Just girls, and women.

E (another pause): Will the baby have a uterus? [This struck me as a very astute question.]

Me: Yes, she will. She just won’t need to use it until she’s older, like a grownup.

Poor kid doesn’t necessarily want to resign himself to the reality of his inability to bear children. Weeks later, he had this conversation with Daddy.

E: Daddy, I’m pregnant.

Daddy: I don’t think so, buddy. You can’t be pregnant.

E: Why?

Daddy: Boys can’t get pregnant. It’s not in our physiology. Only girls can be pregnant. [This is the point where I am certain that, in his mind, Daddy was thinking, “Where’s the fetus gonna gestate? You gonna keep it in a box??“]

To illustrate his point, Daddy continues: Who do we know who’s pregnant?

E names me, and another pregnant friend, and then a non-pregnant mom we know.

Daddy: No, not her…

E: But you said all girls are pregnant!

Aha, the oh-so-subtle but vital difference between “all” and “only”.

I was quite glad when Sean related to me the conversation he’d had with E about how the baby was going to come out. Glad E had asked, and even gladder that he’d asked Daddy. 🙂 And that Daddy handled it so well.

He explained simply that most of the time (unless there is something unusual that means a doctor has to get the baby out surgically through the belly), the baby comes through the mother’s vagina. Shrewdly, E expressed his hunch that a baby would be too big to get out of there. Daddy explained that women’s vaginas are designed to do this, to get bigger and let babies out. Bravo, honey – way to be clear. (Considering how many obstetricians all over the planet seem to have forgotten this important fact.)

We have also explained that once the baby is out of my belly, she will be staying out. (Implication: even if you get tired of your baby sister getting lots of attention, sorry – you can’t go back to being an only child.) Instead of me transporting her inside me, we will have to carry her, or wear her in a sling, or bring her places in a car seat. E seems to have a very logical approach, resulting in one of our favourite quotations: “Well, maybe we can just put her back in Mama’s tummy… for trips.”



10 thoughts on “Talking about anatomy with a preschooler

  1. mama lola says:

    teaching kids the appropriate terms for various body parts is so important. our society gets it’s knickers in a knot and associates words like penis and vagina with just sex. it’s silly. i get embarrassed when i hear adults using the cute words.

    and lastly, why on the puzzle does the mama increase her clothing layers as the pregnancy progresses? that is not accurate from my experience! haha!
    mama lola recently posted..fall wreaths.My Profile

    • diblog says:

      Ha ha! Lola, good point about the puzzle. I theorize she conceived in April and delivered in December/January. 🙂 There’s a last layer of the puzzle that’s not pictured here, where she has the baby in her arms (and is wearing a festive red turtleneck).

  2. C says:

    Well, I agree with your entire concept of proper terms for parts – although when my 3 yr old proceeds to announce loudly that her Daddy has a BIG ‘peanut’, and her brother has a little ‘peanut’…… does get hard to keep a straight face……. 🙂

  3. emerge says:

    Classic stuff!

    E did have a pretend baby in his belly for a while… I wonder whether he just got bored with that idea or what. I think he did get the difference, though, when yours got bigger and his did nothing.

  4. berty says:

    Awww. This is great. E seems to get it, a lot. About what’s going to happen with the bebe, and what can and can not happen spatially, and what bits of knowledge he can store away for later use (sometimes very logical use!). What a little brainypants. I like the part about him having AngryBirds listen to music, too. (Sigh! So cute.)

    Hey, has he ever mentioned eating a baby, so that it will be in his tummy then? I mean, that seems like something that might be logical to him, since the stuff he eats normally does go into the tummy, right? I guess tummy-vs.-uterus talk is important there. …I remember when I was really little I used to picture food going into my head when I ate, instead of downwards, digestive-system-styles.

    I love you guys! I miss the splash park days. More next year!! Maybe even in Dundas, for old times’ sake?


    P.S. My washroom is sketchier: scary non-working ceiling vent of dust-bunnyness, radiator of intense crustiness, water that is sometimes rust-coloured, and bugS!! Got you beat. Even though, near as I can tell, mine was never bright bright red. 🙂 …Maybe I should do that.

    • diblog says:

      No wonder YOU’re such a brainypants, with all that food going straight to your head! Aww. Definitely, Dundas wading pool next year.

      Sorry your bathroom is so sketchy! That’s not okay… is there someone reasonable you can talk to about this??

  5. Mark says:

    Thanks, Di, for yet another daily chuckle (tending towards a “guffaw” session). It’s been a while since my own were that little, but we used the same logic and stayed away from the cutesy terms, too. E sounds like a hoot-and-a-half… enjoy these discussions while they last.

    Mark B.

    • diblog says:

      Mark, thanks for reading! I hope it brings back some fun memories from when your own were little… I know my siblings and I have always loved to hear about humourous things we said as kids, so I’m looking forward to E being able to read this stuff someday and chuckle too.

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