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. It can be very difficult to 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?
You’ll find more information about sex education in my Sex Education 101 page.
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 their genitals ( or 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.
Other private parts of the body include the mouth and the bottom.
For girls, when naming the genitals (or 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.
Other private parts of the body include the mouth and the bottom.
And yes, there are some other parts as well that you can also include, like the clitoris. And then there is the bottom and the mouth as well (which can be used in a sexual way).
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 its 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.
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!
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.
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.
These girl and boy puzzles by Hape actually do have some very basic (non- threatening) genitals on the naked body.
Or if you want something that has a few more clothes and both male and female bodies, then the Melissa and Doug set is an option.
Or if you want some puzzles of people in work clothing (and genitals) then this set by T.S. Shure are another option.
There are dolls that are anatomically correct. You can find boy and girl dolls of different cultural backgrounds and of varying sizes. Here are some of them.
I'm Cath, a sex educator living in Australia with my husband and 2 kids. I help parents to talk about sex (with less cringe and more confidence) and to empower their child to make smart sexual decisions. You can join my online parent support group here and visit my shop for helpful resources.