Hi, I'm Cath Hakanson, a mother, sexologist and health professional with over 23 years of clinical expertise. This article is based on the latest research, current recommendations, expert opinion and a good dose of common sense.
As a parent, we get told what we should (and shouldn’t do) a lot! And what to teach kids in regards to naming private parts, is one of those things that a lot of people have strong opinions on.
Teaching your child the correct name for their genitals (or private parts) is one of the first steps in sex education and in protecting kids from sexual abuse. There are a lot of really good reasons as to why kids need to know the correct names for these parts.
But more importantly, it is part of the language for talking to your kids about where babies come. You can’t talk about sex if you can’t even say the word penis or vagina (or vulva) in front of your kids!
So what is a parent supposed to do? And why?
Research tells us that kids who know the correct names for their genitals:
But more importantly, you’re opening the door for open and honest conversations on questions that they may have about their body and sexuality. Your kids will instinctively know that if you are naming private parts, that you’ll also be okay to talk about other stuff. And as a parent, this is what you want. You can’t monitor and protect your child 24 hours a day. And if something happens or they hear something that they just don’t understand, you want them to know that they can come and talk to you about it.
For boys, when naming private parts, we use the terms penis and testicles or scrotum.
Technically, the testicles are the inside part (they feel like a peeled boiled egg) and the scrotum is the skin or sac on the outside that holds them.
For girls, when naming private parts, we use the terms vulva and vagina.
Ideally, we should start off talking about the vulva as the outside part, and the vagina as the inside part. Don’t stress if you started with the word vagina, just start including the vulva as well.
My daughter had lots of ear infections as a child, so she had issues with her hearing. So whenever I talked to her about her vulva, she would hear ‘Boulder’ instead and would think I was talking about Boulder from the Thomas the tank engine cartoon. To save confusion, we used vagina for a while, and then when her hearing improved, and she was old enough to understand what I meant, we started to use the term vulva as well.
And yes, there are some other parts as well that you can also include, like the clitoris.
You can start talking about these other parts as well, at whatever age you like. But try to keep it age-appropriate and based on their level of curiosity. This is something that we do instinctively as parents ie talking about things at a level that is appropriate to that child.
For example, if a 3 year old points to a flower and says ‘What’s that?’, you will probably keep it pretty simple and generalise, by saying it is a flower. if they were 5, you might give more detail and say, that’s a daisy. If they are 7, you might say, that’s a flower and it is about to drop it’s seeds. If they want more details you might point out the different parts of the flower, such as the petals, stem, leaves, stamen etc.
There is no hard or fast rule on this one. If you want to teach your 3 year old about the clitoris, you can do so and you won’t over sexualise or harm them. And if you want to wait until they are wanting the details, that’s fine too. You won’t impede their sexual development or give them any hang ups about their body!
So try to remember, start off simple and add in further details as they get older. The important thing is that you are acknowledging that they have these parts and that they have a proper name.
And if you’re not sure about what the other names are and where things are, you can sign up and download a PDF that will point you in the right direction!
The best way to start naming private parts is to incorporate the correct names into everyday language. At first, you may feel awkward, but the more you say them, the more comfortable you will become.
If you struggle with saying the names aloud, practice saying them in front of the mirror or with your partner before starting with your child. Trust me, this will help! The more you say these words, the more comfortable you will become. It is a slow process of desensitisation!
You can start using the correct names for the body parts during nappy changes, bath time, when getting dressed and during toilet training. The opportunities are endless.
It is important to make the correct names sound natural. You want your child to think that their genitals are equal to any other part of their body and something they shouldn’t be ashamed of. So try to say them in your everyday voice – the one you use when talking about what they’re having for dinner tonight!
If you’ve already been using other names, start using the correct terms as well. It is okay to use appropriate slang as long as you also use the correct name as well.
Using both the correct name and slang isn’t going to harm your child or put them at any risk. It is just letting them know that people use other names for different reasons – they are too embarrassed to use the proper name, some names are rude words, it is fun, they like to be silly, etc.
So if you’ve haven’t started using the proper names yet, try explaining to your child that you think they are now old enough to start using the correct names of their private parts.
Sometimes kids will get into trouble by adults for using the correct names.
You need to let your child know that the names for our genitals are private words and that they should avoid using them in public places, like in the playground or at school.
Explain to them that some adults get embarrassed by those words and may get cranky if they hear kids saying them. If this happens, they need to tell you. Kids aren’t stupid – they work out pretty quickly what is and isn’t socially acceptable.
If this happens, they need to tell you. Kids aren’t stupid – they work out pretty quickly what is and isn’t socially acceptable.
Kids aren’t stupid – they work out pretty quickly what is and isn’t socially acceptable.
And by knowing the correct names, does that mean that they will be silly with them? Possibly, but remember that toilet talk about ‘poo, wee, bums and penises’ happens regardless with kids, whether they are using the correct names or not!
An upside is that kids who have these words as a normal part of their vocabulary are less likely to use them in a silly way. There is no power in using a word that is acceptable!
Using books for naming private parts are a great way to normalise it all. Plus they provide you with the right words to explain it all. You can find some fantastic books listed in my sex education book review page.