What do your call your child’s private parts when you talk to them? Willy? Fanny? Minnie? Down there? Bottom? Girly bits? Front-bottom?!
We have always used the correct anatomical terms with Frida, and since she could speak she has used the words vulva and penis to describe human reproductive parts. Although this might have drawn some strange looks in public in the past (sitting on a busy train with a toddler clutching a Schleich ram figurine and gleefully shouting “the daddy ram has a penis!” was a high point), I feel very strongly about this.
Teaching children the correct language for their body parts can help them by:
Removing shame from those parts of their body. The American Academy of Pediatrics says: “In early childhood, parents can teach their children the name of the genitals, just as they teach their child names of other body parts. This teaches that the genitals, while private, are not so private that you can’t talk about them.” An elbow is an elbow, a knee is a knee, a vulva is a vulva. I know a number of grown women – who have given birth to children – who cannot say the word vagina without wincing, either through embarrassment or just because it “doesn’t sound nice”. Tellingly, most of these adults will have grown up with parents who only ever used slang. If we feel uncomfortable using the correct language with our children, this teaches them that those parts of the body are shameful and literally “unspeakable”, and that talking about them is naughty, rude, or wrong. Using the correct terms for body parts keeps them free from shame and embarrassment.
Keeping them safe. There is a consensus in research that knowing the correct anatomical terms not only enhances children’s self-confidence, but also makes them less susceptible to those those who may want to harm them. These people often use euphemisms instead of anatomical language, and knowing proper terms give children credibility should they need to recognise abuse. If the worst should happen and a child is abused, knowing the correct language and not feeling shame about using it can help both the child and adults deal with disclosure and the following forensic and interview process. Although this is not a fun topic to think (or write!) about it is important, and it is our responsibility as parents to do all we can to safeguard our children.
We have chosen to show Frida this short, fun video by the NSPCC. It’s really catchy and Frida loves watching it, and it’s led to some great conversations about which parts of our bodies are private, and more generally about consent. The NSPCC also has some brilliant, clear guidance on talking to children about staying safe here following their PANTS rules.
Allowing them to talk about clearly about their health needs, whatever their age, and without shame. I have met a surprising number of sensible adults who didn’t know that the correct name for the external female reproductive parts is a vulva (FYI – the vagina is the internal passage leading to from the vulva to the uterus). If your child needs to communicate a problem or concern to a parent or doctor – now or in the future! – it helps everyone if the correct language is used, eg. to know if it’s the vulva or vagina that feels sore or itchy, or if they’ve found a lump on their penis or testicles. “Down there” is not a helpful term for anyone.
Preparing them for healthy sexual relationships one day. If children grow up feeling shame about the intimate parts of their body, and learn that it is wrong to talk about them, then it will be far harder for them to ask questions about sex – and far harder to have healthy, open dialogue with their future partners when it comes to communicating their needs and desires as well as their boundaries and their consent. Lack of sexual health knowledge (including poor knowledge of anatomy and the reproductive system) is also associated with lower contraceptive use. Yes, our children are many years off from these intimate relationships, but it’s never too early to give them a sense of confidence in and understanding of their bodies.
As an aside: it’s a telling sign of the patriarchal society we live in that many people feel far more comfortable saying the word penis out loud than vulva or clitoris – and that there still exists a sizeable orgasm gap between women and their male lovers (read this excellent article to find out more).
What words do you use in your family? Do you feel comfortable using anatomical language with children, or does using these words make you feel uncomfortable?
6 replies on “Why children should know the correct name for their body parts”
We’ve taught my daughter the words penis and vagina ( though I realized already this was not strictly correct it is the more common use.) But day to day we use slang so she knows both and knows that people use all kinds of words to describe their genitals. To me it seems the same as using the words ”belly button’ which again is not the anatomical label for this part but is the common name. Ideally a child would know both, I really don’t see how this would put a child at risk. As long as we all know what we are talking about with confidence – so what? Sometimes the embarrassment comes not from the name but the fact that they are our sexual organs which have a special privacy not just because we have a particular name for them in my opinion.
Hi Amy! I guess for me, it’s because there is already so much shame around these parts of the body in our culture. I realise that my daughter is unlikely to hear the correct anatomical language very much in wider use, so I personally feel it’s important to just use the correct language (which I why I also think it’s important for us to use vulva rather than vagina – you’d be amazed at how many grown women and men out there simply don’t know that that is what that part of the body is called, which I find pretty bad given what an important part of the body it is!) From a sexual abuse perspective – and I know it’s horrid to think about – the advice is pretty clear, which is why we don’t use any slang. I also think that I would find it really weird to use slang now! xx
Feel so strongly about this, thank you so much for writing about it. Your articles are so helpful!
Hear. HEAR. Better go read about this orgasm gap……
In our family we completely believe this philosophy, except for one part. We do say vagina not vulva. I know it’s not right but it’s the term I use mysef, and a hard habit to break. I am very comfortable with saying vagina, and vulva does feel more uncomfortable for me. It’s always a hard parenting moment for me when I see my own discomfort effecting my parenting. Any tips for how to make the change to using vulva, both for me and for my just turned two year old? She does currently say vagina, and has articulated feelings about it to me often as we have done toilet learning.
Hi Meaghan! I totally understand the discomfort, but perhaps look at it this way – you pushing through the discomfort is saving her having to push through the discomfort for her own son or daughter one day. Perhaps reading more about the parts of the body would help? This is a fab article: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/lets-clear-up-the-vagina-vs-vulva-debate-once-and-for-all_us_562f99dfe4b06317990f73c8