As a doc, I need to take care of the whole child. I do this with respect for every kiddo; and with their parent’s consent, presence, and permission. Sometimes the job includes discussing or examining a child’s genitals.
In the past, it was not thought of as appropriate to allow children to speak openly about sensitive anatomical areas (“private parts.”) Growing up as kids, we may have had family slang or nicknames for certain areas of the body. Over the past few years, however, there has been increasing evidence for using anatomically correct words for genitals as we teach our kids about their bodies.
For the health and safety of our kids, children should know the anatomical names for their private areas by the age of 4 years. These words commonly include penis/scrotum and vagina/vulva.
Here’s why teaching the words “penis” and “vagina” matters:
1. Funny names make it weird. We all want our children to grow up proud of healthy, strong bodies. They deserve to know all the parts that makeup who they are. Making up words, or talking in vague terms about a part of them that is very real — that they can see — has the potential to undermine the development of early body confidence and self-empowerment. We want our children to take ownership of their bodies; to know that their body is something of value that should be protected. Speaking openly and confidently about our bodies is a first step to that goal.
2. These are words for safety. Crystal clear sexual boundaries are best created using precise descriptions of genitals. Children need to understand that genitals are private. To teach this important lesson most effectively, accurate words allow black-and-white instruction. Joking tones or hushed voices verbally imply that genitals are something that should not be talked about, but kids should never be made to feel like talking about their body is going to get them in trouble. Empower them to speak out to a trusted adult by providing straight-forward, anatomic words as tools for safety.
3. What if something is wrong? When our kids are hurting, we want to be able to help. To a trusted parent or doctor, it should be just as easy for a girl to say her vagina itches as her arm itches. The correct words makes it easier to help define problems and get healthful solutions.
4. It’s a matter of trust. We want our children to trust our advice and education. If we make-up words or laugh at inquiring voices, we risk making our kids feel shame about their bodies. Yet, we know that kids should never feel shame about something they own. As parents, we must overcome our own insecurities to be honest and forthright with our kids in all things. It will serve us well now and in the future.
Bottom line: You are not teaching sex; you are teaching anatomy. Do it for your child’s health and safety.
Natasha Burgert is a pediatrician who blogs at KC Kids Doc.
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