A few weeks ago my three year-old daughter and I were with some friends, one of whom also had a three-year old child. At one point, as is inevitable when spending time with little ones, my daughter farted. "Uh oh! Did you fart?" I asked her? Well, I got a look from the other parent in the room, making it clear to me that "fart" is not a word that is used in his house. Which got me to thinking, would a fart by any other name smell as bad? Probably.
So what is in a name? Is it somehow bad for a three year-old to say the word "fart"? There’s an invisible line, I know, between appropriate and inappropriate language for children (or, perhaps, for any of us, but that’s for another posting). I’m not eager for my three year-old daughter to say to me, "Daddy, I have to take a shit," but somehow her use of the word "fart" doesn’t bother me. Perhaps I draw that invisible linguistic line in a different place than most parents.
But when does a "boompie noise" (what we said in my house growing up) become "fart"? And at what age does "pee pee" or "weenie" become "penis"? And when my daughter points to her nipples or between her legs and asks, "Daddy, what’s that?" how do I respond? I did not grow up with sisters, and so I am not privy to the childhood nicknames for such parts of the female anatomy. So I either give her textbook terms for those body parts, and/or I encourage her to talk with her mother about it (my daughter knows that she and mommy are girls, and that daddy is a boy).
Of course, much of this has to do with what is "appropriate," a cultural construction that may often hinder the child’s access to information that would otherwise empower her to understand and demystify her body. Think of that – an arm is an arm and a foot is a foot, but a penis is a "pee pee," and nipples are "boobies." No wonder our kids grow up with a whacked sense of sexuality and a distorted understanding of their bodies!
I admit to feeling funny telling my daughter about her body parts, but that’s not because doing so is inappropriate. I’m a product of my ironic era during which we children of sexually-liberated hippies grew up with little straight-forward sexual knowledge or information other than that gleaned from movies or the locker room. I think that my parent’s generation benefited from the various outcomes of sexual liberation, but perhaps they were not quite sure what this meant for their kids. A generation later I hope that my generation, as parents, and the schools and churches we send our children too, are able to teach about sexuality and the gift that is the human body with deep sincerity, integrity and clarity.
I am reminded of the Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 21 (Luther’s Works, volume 31): "A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is." Call a thing what it actually is, damn it! A fart is a fart. There’s nothing cute about it (especially when it comes from my daughter – wow, she can be potent!). And a penis is a penis, a vagina a vagina, nipples are nipples, and breasts are breasts (and for you Depeche Mode fans out there, People are People).
At least, they are in our household.