When our kids were toddlers, my husband and I recognized the importance of teaching them anatomically correct terms for their private parts. Of course, we knew this might include some awkward moments — like the time our 2-year-old daughter blurted, "Boys have penises!" while we were enjoying a quiet dinner with grandparents at a Chinese restaurant. But ultimately, we decided that the wisdom of using correct terms outweighed potential embarrassment. This approach can improve parent-child communication, prevent abuse and set a foundation for healthy sexuality.
One benefit of using accurate terms for body parts is that it opens the lines of communication between parents and children. As children come to realize that conversations about sex are not shameful or taboo, they learn that they can talk to Mom or Dad about anything.
Author and physician Walt Larimore explains how using the right term builds a solid foundation for family conversation. "My wife and I taught our children from an early age about God's divine design for them sexually," he says. "For us, this meant using anatomically correct names for each body part. We discussed body parts and how they work as if it were a totally natural conversation. We wanted our kids to never be ashamed of what God created."
My husband and I opted for a similar approach. Using the correct words for penis, vagina and testicle when appropriate removes embarrassment in talking about private areas. These terms are normalized, just as if we'd talked about the child's arm or nose. Doing this helps to establish a basis for open and honest conversations in the years to come.
Private and off-limit
Along with teaching children the proper words for body parts, we also emphasize that certain body parts are private and off-limits to others. Our 2-year-old’s restaurant announcement was one of several awkward moments in public. We have had to coach our kids regarding when and where it is appropriate to talk (loudly) about these body parts. But the confidence we feel, knowing that they wouldn't hesitate to tell us if something happened, is well worth any embarrassment.
Dr. Larimore says that he and his wife also used “your personals” or “your private parts” when referring to a general part of a child's body. "It was a teaching tool,” he says. “Another way of training our children that certain areas of their bodies were personal and private. No one was allowed to touch or view those areas without their — and our — permission, and without our presence."
Experts believe teaching your child plain and accurate terms to describe the human body can help prevent sexual abuse by giving kids the language they need to ask important questions, and especially to be able to recognize potentially dangerous situations. Predators often use euphemisms for private areas, and knowing proper terms give your child credibility should he or she ever need to recognize or report abuse.
Laura Palumbo, a prevention specialist with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, notes that kids who understand correct terminology are better prepared for a world where abuse is an awful reality. "Teaching children anatomically correct terms, age-appropriately, promotes positive body image, self confidence and parent-child communication.”
Using correct anatomical terms with children lays a foundation for the terms you'll need to discuss when you begin the conversation about sex. "Research shows that the vast majority of children want information about sex and sexual health to come first and foremost from their parents," Dr. Larimore says. "If you open up to your kids about sex and sexual health early, then they'll know you are there for them and their questions — all of them — at any time."
When kids are older and a larger discussion on this topic takes place, parents already have the words to use that their children understand. That can provide parents with confidence as they guide their young children through the process of developing a healthy and whole sexual identity.