Some parents believe that only anatomically correct names should be used, while another camp is fine with cute code words, and still others fall somewhere in between. This article breaks down the key reasons parents choose the words they do.
After working in women’s magazines for years—particularly, writing about sexual health for Cosmopolitan—I’m not one to shy away from words like “vagina” and “penis.” So when it came to teaching my 2-year-old twin daughters the names of their most private parts, I knew I wasn’t going to sell them on cutesy euphemisms—a grey-area anatomy lesson, if you will.
Recently, during a diaper change, one of my daughters pointed down below and asked, “What’s that?” I replied that it’s called a vulva on the outside and a vagina on the inside. She laughed and said, “’gina!” with the same glee she expressed when I taught her “eyebrows” and “nose.” To her, it’s just another new and exciting word that helps her better understand her body.
But not every parent is comfortable with teaching the technical—and let’s face it, awkward—terms. “I would say probably 80 percent of parents are using euphemisms and 20 percent are using anatomically correct terms,” David Levine, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, tells Yahoo Parenting.
Although it seems that we’ve become more progressive and open-minded as a society, children’s knowledge of genital terms hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years. One study published in the journalCounseling and Human Development found that, while nearly 90 percent of children could rattle off the names of their non-genital body parts by age two, only 10 percent knew the correct terms for penis, breasts and vulva—nearly the same level of awareness that studies found 20 years ago.
However, teaching kids their proper anatomy helps them develop a healthier, more positive body image, notes Levine. On the flip side, avoiding technical terms can make girls in particular feel as though their genitals are something to be embarrassed about, according to Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.
That was a big reason I wanted my kids to use actual anatomical terms rather than nicknames. By renaming their private parts as though they’re in the witness protection program, I was afraid I’d be teaching my daughters that a vagina is something to be ashamed of. “It’s the euphemism that sends the message that sex is not to be talked about and a girl’s body is shameful,” Markham tells Yahoo Parenting. “And I don’t think that’s the message we want to send our daughters.”
Using proper names also helps create an open dialogue between you and your child. Doing so early on teaches kids that, while genitals are private, they’re not a secret topic that can’t be broached, according tothe American Academy of Pediatrics.
“We always want kids to be able to talk to us about any part of their body,” Janet F. Rosenzweig, Ph.D., vice president for programs and research at Prevent Child Abuse America, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Understanding how the body and genitals works is one of the key factors to sexual health and safety.”
Adds Markham: “If your child is trying to tell you or anyone else that it burns when she pees, she needs to be able to explain what’s happening. It’s critical for kids to communicate about their bodies and that they have the language to do it. If your child is ever inappropriately touched by someone—stepfathers, babysitters or by other children—you want him or her to describe what happened using real words.”
Can it be awkward to say “vagina” or “penis” to your child? Sure. Is there a good chance your child will ask—loudly—if the checkout lady at the grocery store also has a vagina? Yep. But it’s too important to let embarrassment get in the way. “Parents need to be the primary sex educators of their kids,” says Rosenzweig. “As a parent, it’s part of your job. By giving kids the language, this is where you start.”