By Debra W Haffner, with Dr Robert Needlman
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Mum and daughter reading a book together credit Hanke
Children need to learn the names for their genitals, just as they need to learn about their heads, shoulders, knees and toes.

Talking about the genitals

When children are about a year old, parents often start to teach them the names of the parts of their bodies. Many parents make a simple game of it with their infant or toddler – for example, ‘This is your head, this is your nose, this is your tummy, these are your knees, and these are your toes’. Unfortunately, many parents skip over a very important part of the body – the genitals. And in doing so, they inadvertently convey the message that these parts of the body are different and make mum and dad a little uncomfortable. Other parents do name the genitals, but use cutesy, made-up names.

How much better it would be if a parent can learn to say, calmly and without embarrassment, ‘This is your head, this is your nose, this is your tummy, this is your vulva (or penis), these are your knees, these are your toes’. In this way, your child will learn that all of the parts of the body are good and all parts have names. More important, she also will learn that you’re open to talking about sexual issues and feelings.

Parents are sometimes surprised when I recommend that their daughters learn the word ‘vulva’ before the word ‘vagina’, just like boys should learn they have a penis before they are taught that they have a urethra. This is because it’s more important to teach a young child about an external body part (the vulva), which she can see, versus the vagina, which is located internally and is therefore not of much interest.
– Debra W. Haffner and Robert Needlman

Using teaching opportunities

Use teaching opportunities to introduce the names of body parts. For example, try using the correct names while you’re bathing your child or changing his nappies or clothes. Age-appropriate books that include this subject for preschoolers, as well as anatomically correct dolls, can provide additional teachable moments.

As your child gets a little older, you can talk about how gender relates to a child’s biological sexual identity – for example, ‘Michael has a penis and he is a boy. You have a vulva and you are a girl’. If your child seems interested, you can continue, ‘All boys and men have penises. All girls and women have vulvas’.

You can offer more detailed information about the names of specific parts of the genitals once your child approaches school age. Boys aged 4-5 years can learn about their scrotum – for example, ‘Those sacs between your legs are your scrotum. Inside them are special parts called the testicles’. Girls aged 4-5 years can be told, ‘The opening between your legs is called a vagina. That tiny button a little way up from this opening is your clitoris’. Both boys and girls can learn that they have buttocks and that the opening there is the anus.

By teaching your children that all the parts of the body are equally special, you will help them grow into adults with a healthy appreciation for their bodies.