My daughter impressed me with her basic grasp of life sciences. We sat down together and discussed mammals, fish, birds, plants and reptiles, highlighting the simple differences between species and genders.
And then she knocked me sideways.
“Girls have nuunas,” she said. “And boys have wallets.”
She was describing male and female genitalia. I was dumbstruck. I had staggered down a blind alley of parenthood I hadn’t anticipated – the words our children use when referring to our most private of parts. It’s an issue that this first-time father is struggling with.
What are the appropriate terms to be used for our sensitive areas and at what age should our children use them?
Getting their actual names out of the way, penis and vagina are far too sterile, academic, literal and, well, dull for a five-year-old to be repeating in the kindergarten playground. Not that they are vulgar. On the contrary, they veer towards the opposite extreme. They are too clinical, too precise; too textbook-oriented. They shouldn’t be saddled on someone so young.
For some reason, using such specific anatomical terms feels like a child calling a car a “motor vehicle”; or a school an “academic institution”; or a train a “mass rapid transit”. (Oh, we already do that. We’re so literal.)
These terms are too correct, starved of any creativity or playfulness. Language should be playful, particularly for youngsters still learning and shaping their sentences around exciting new words.
And that’s where “nuunas” and “wallets” come in. The “nunna”, in our household at least, derives from “nuun”, a common, colloquial term used in and around London when I was growing up. “Nuun”, which is pronounced somewhere between “none” and “non” (it doesn’t actually rhyme with anything) was the innocent, gentle, polite word most commonly heard throughout my childhood.
But I always felt the word had a hard edge, an abrupt ending. So it was softened to the more sing-song “nunna” when my daughter came along. She is the only girl in her class who knows this word. Apparently, no girl in her multi-racial, multi-cultural classroom uses the same term twice, which must make toilet time a nightmare for the teacher.
But “nunna” it will stay until, sadly, childhood innocence slowly ebbs away and less innocent, more literal descriptions will take precedence. At some point, her vocabulary will be forced to change.
Fortunately, that’s a minefield that can be navigated later. In the more pressing short term, the wallet must be addressed.
The term was my daughter’s invention and I was initially overwhelmed by her creativity. Using her remarkable powers of reasoning, she deduced that girls and boys are different in only two aspects. They have different private parts. And they keep their money in different fashion accessories.
Girls have “nunnas” and purses. Boys have wallets and, er, wallets.
Since she never had a proper term for boys – she has no brothers so it’s not a topic that’s ever come up – she figured that a wallet was as good a word as any.
As a father, I marvelled at my daughter’s ingenuity and thought no more about it. But she’s now reaching a delicate age of explosive personal development. Her self—awareness is a speeding bullet train, hurtling along to the next station of discovery. Her malleable mind is devouring knowledge, leaving facts and figures trailing in her wake.
She’s going to have to be told the truth about the wallet.
When we discussed different animal species and genders and she mentioned the “nunna v wallet” thing, I winced. It wasn’t the first time.
She came home from school recently and informed me that one of the boys in her class was hit between the legs with a basketball and had to show the nurse his sore wallet.
I showed my wife my sore wallet when we got our last credit card bill. The two are obviously not the same thing.
On more than one occasion, I’ve dashed around the apartment searching for my wallet only for my little girl to calmly say: “But Daddy … Boys always have their wallets in the same place.” Daddy and daughter must address this matter in the near future and find a new noun. Literal and vulgar descriptions remain off limits of course, but a slightly more specific word is required for boys.
Otherwise, if she overhears another father discussing his financial struggles and how it’s hitting him hard in the wallet, she’ll pack him off to the school nurse.
About the Author: Neil Humphreys is one of Singapore’s best-selling authors. His works include Notes from an Even Smaller Island (2001), Scribbles from the Same Island (2003), and Final Notes from a Great Island: A Farewell Tour of Singapore (2006). Be My Baby (2008) chronicled his journey to parenthood and was his first international best-seller. His latest Singapore book, Return to a Sexy Island, is a No.1 national best-seller. Humphreys has written extensively for The Straits Times, TODAY, The New Paper, Men’s Health and Young Parents in Singapore. He currently lives in Bedok with his family and hopes his daughter will learn conversational Mandarin so she can teach her Dad.
First published in 19-08-2013.