3 Critical Reasons to Teach Your Kid the Proper Names for Genitals
Maybe you have a visceral reaction when you say words like vulva, penis, vagina, and scrotum; maybe you stutter; maybe your mouth just won't let those words come out.
If this is you–if you have a hard time saying the words for genitals, if your gut is telling you it's just wrong to say those words–you'll need some compelling reasons to start saying vulva and penis to your baby, your toddler, or your kid.
So, here they are! The three critical reasons to teach your kid the proper names for genitals:
It promotes a positive body image
It sets the foundation for future conversations
It helps detect and prevent Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)
Reason 1: Promotes a positive body image
Let's check out some nicknames that parents use to describe genitals to their kids:
unmentionables, pee-pee, coochie, tee-tee, cookie, butterfly, flower, no-no, tinkler, girl parts, kitty cat, peach
peanut, peter, potty, unmentionables, dinger, tee-tee, wanker, nuts, little buddy, jewels, tinky, doodie, junk, thingy, boy parts
Even worse is when a parent uses no words and completely ignores these parts of the body.
What are nicknames telling your kids?
That a part of their body, a part they share with nearly half of other people, is either shameful, bad, and wrong or is infantile and ridiculous.
It's easy for these feelings about genitals to transfer to your child's feelings about themself:
If they have questions about their genitals, they are infantile and ridiculous.
If they explore their genitals, they are shameful, bad, and wrong.
Why does this matter?
Of course, we want our kids to feel good about all of themselves. At least one study has found a strong correlation between negative feelings and beliefs around their genitals and a poor body image.
But this also has major health implications:
A survey conducted by The Eve Appeal, a UK charity for gynecological cancers, found that "more than one in ten of 16-35 year olds said they found it very hard to talk to their GPs about gynaecological health concerns, and nearly a third admitted that they had avoided going to the doctors altogether with gynaecological issues due to embarrassment."
Reason 2: Sets the foundation for future conversations
Little kids are curious. Your toddler will ask you about their penis, their vulva, their poop, their anus, your penis, your vulva, etc., etc., etc. But how will you react to their questions?
Imagine you react by saying, "we don't talk about those things!"
What does your kid internalize?
First, that these parts of the body are bad and shameful (see above). And second, that they can't ask you questions about their body or genitals.
So what happens when they start puberty? When they start to get butterflies thinking about that special someone? When a friend mentions sex?
They'll start having questions, and they're going to find answers.
But they know they're not going to get answers from you. You made that clear when they were 3.
Hopefully, they'll have had comprehensive sex education in their schools (unlikely) and will have opportunities to ask these types of questions to teachers. But more likely, they'll go to the internet. And the internet is not the teacher you want for your kid's sex education.
Now imagine you react by saying, "That's your vulva. Those folds of skin are called labia, and between them is a little hole called your urethra where pee comes out! How cool is that?!?"
What does your kid internalize?
That genitals serve an important function. AND that you'll answer their questions about them!
Now what happens when your kid starts puberty and has questions about sex? They're a lot more likely to come to you! This means you'll be able to impart your values and beliefs around sex to them, rather than have them learn what sex is and means from the internet.
Reason 3: Helps detect and prevent Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)
If a child suffers CSA and can tell a trusted adult, it is critical that they know the proper names for genitals. Imagine a child decides to report to a teacher and says, "so-and-so touched my cookie." What might the teacher think? Likely, that so-and-so literally touched a cookie. Now imagine a child says, "so-and-so touched my vulva." Now it's clear to the teacher that something wrong happened that must be reported to the authorities for further investigation.
Knowing the proper names for genitals dramatically increases the likelihood that whoever a child tells will understand the child.
And if the person the child reports to understands what the child is telling them, that person is much more likely to:
report the abuse to authorities
take steps to separate the child from the perpetrator
help the child get mental health support they will need to recover.
Finally, for a court to convict a CSA offender, the child must often clearly describe the body parts involved. Surprisingly, there usually is no medical evidence to show abuse. Less surprisingly, there are rarely witnesses. Consequently, the case against the perpetrator often relies heavily on the child's testimony. And because many jurisdictions require the body parts involved to be identified to arrive at a conviction, a child's testimony will be much stronger if they know and use the proper names for genitals.
I've had people challenge me on this.
"How can knowing 'penis' and 'vulva' protect my kid? They're just words!"
Yes, they're just words. But these words act as signals to potential perpetrators. In fact, in interviews, perpetrators have noted that they avoid children who know about their body.
Why might this be?
Here's what a child knowing these words tell perpetrators:
- "I'm not ashamed to ask my parents questions about my genitals." Questions like, "why does my vulva itch?" ... or... questions like, "why does so-and-so tickle my penis when we play tickle games?"
- "My family talks openly about genitals and probably also talks about safe and unsafe touch."
- "If you assault me, I have the words to tell others what happened so they understand me."
- "If you assault me, I can describe what happened clearly enough that you can go to jail."
Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions about these 3 reasons! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.