Why I Am Using Proper Body-Part Labels With My Young Kids

by Ambrosia Brody

Anyone else cringe when little kids-or adults-refer to their “private parts” with cutesy names? Blame it on societal norms or the generation gap, but the terms "vagina," "vulva," and "penis" are not considered acceptable. During a time when celebrities are working to normalize breastfeeding in public, and Taylor Swift is teaching our children about equality and acceptance through music videos, now seems the right time to encourage kids to use correct body part labels.

But, traditional social norms and judgmental adults make it difficult to know when is the right time to teach our children correct terminology for body labels. Let people know that that you let your 4-year-old use the V word and prepare to answer 20 questions. As a parent, I want to protect my daughters from being shamed for using body part labels, but they also need to know correct terminology.

A large part of keeping your kids safe is helping them understand that their body is theirs and no one, not even mom or dad, is allowed to cross their boundaries. The American Academy of Pediatrics reinforces the need to teach children anatomic names for their body parts, as do evidence-based education programs on health/sexual education, and sexual abuse prevention.

“Children who have names for their body parts, and are encouraged to use them, are more likely to speak up and say ‘no’ if something happens to their body that they don't like; or to disclose to someone if anything abusive takes place,” says Dr. Shalon M. Nienow, a pediatrician specializing in child abuse and medical clinical director for The Chadwick Center for Children and Families Rady Children's Hospital of San Diego.

“When we as adults teach children that certain body parts can't be spoken of, or if they are, must be spoken of in code, this instills a feeling that they are secret and shameful," says Nienow. "Perpetrators can use this to their advantage, and will reinforce these themes, preventing a child from disclosing abuse, and allowing it to continue indefinitely.”

When the doctor examined my daughter for a potential yeast infection, he explained he was going to look in her vagina and asked if that was OK. My daughter knew exactly what he was asking and allowed him to proceed with the examination. I was proud that she was comfortable using the medical term for this body part, even if others told me she was too young to use “that word.”

“Children should be taught from the beginning (there is no such thing as a child being ‘too young’) what the names of their ‘private parts’ are and who is allowed to look at them/touch them and under what circumstances,” says Nienow.

Think of genitals as you would any other body part that serves a function. There’s no shame associated with a nose, elbow, or nipple, so why speak in code to describe other essential body parts?

Laura Palumba, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center agrees. “It is important to teach anatomically correct terms for body parts especially when talking about what has so long been talked about as a ‘private area’ because we really want to give children information that can help them feel empowered to set clear boundaries.”

Because kids don’t have filters, parents may chose to use different terms for vagina and penis to avoid embarrassing scenes in public places. Or, kids may be instructed that it’s OK to use these terms at home but are directed to call them something different in public, such as “private part,” or “ladybug.”

When 'cute' names are used to describe genitals, the terms may not be easily understood by others, and therefore may not garner an appropriate response if a child discloses inappropriate touch and/or abuse.

Here's the issue with that: “This has great potential to cause confusion in kids and reinforces a sense of shame and secrecy that these aren’t things we talk about the way we talk about our other body parts,” says Palumba.

I was never shamed for saying "vagina," but I was taught that the term should not be used in public. Being instructed to not use correct terminology for my body parts made me feel like vagina was a bad word, and not a body part that should be discussed in front of others. It was not until becoming a mom to two daughters that I realized how confusing those instructions were, and how they made me feel. As a parent, I want my children to feel confident and not ashamed of their bodies, which is why vagina and penis are the only labels the girls have ever used for these body parts.

“When 'cute' names are used to describe genitals, the terms may not be easily understood by others, and therefore may not garner an appropriate response if a child discloses inappropriate touch and/or abuse," says Nienow. "When a child tells a teacher that someone touched her cookie they may misinterpret this term and brush it off. If the same child says that someone touched her vagina a very different response ensues, one that is protective in nature.”

Standing up for your parenting choices is hard, especially if you hate confrontation. I’ve been told the words are too “grown-up,” too “mature,” and crass.

It can be difficult not getting defensive. But setting values and rules that work for your family inside and outside the home can help children understand that screaming penis at home is acceptable, but maybe keep it to an indoor voice when shopping in a store. Another option, and the one I practice, is letting kids use these terms out in the real world and not apologizing for it.

Another adult might be uncomfortable with my daughters saying vagina, but it doesn’t really matter. When a child told me my daughter was using potty language by saying vagina, I explained that in our family that term is appropriate and not a bad word. I would never force another child to use those terms, but I won’t let my children be shamed for using appropriate language.

“Parents should be prepared for the discomfort of other adults like family or care taker soit is important for parents to feel comfortable communicating their values with these adults,” says Palumba.

It can be as simple as saying “actually in our house we want our children to understand it's OK talking about their bodies and that includes knowing the correct term for all their body parts.” Or, “we think this information helps make our children safer because knowing these terms allows them to set very clear boundaries and be able to communicate with me if these boundaries are ever violated.”

Empowering children to respond to a peer or adult's negative reaction can also be done in a very clear, and direct manner. Nienow suggests preparing kids to stand firm and tell their critics "that's what their names are" or “It’s what my parents taught me to call them," or "I am sorry that you don't like those words, but that is what the correct names are. My mom/dad told me to always use the correct names."

Removing the shame and secrecy associated with body part labels will help to normalize vagina, penis and other terms that make us uncomfortable. Hearing my girls talk openly about their vaginas or informing me that boys have a penis was jarring at first, but now it’s just part of the conversation. I appreciate their openness and their clear communication. I’ll admit to being embarrassed when my youngest yells “my vagina itches” while in a toilet stall, but I’m proud of her clear, direct communication. Her lack of embarrassment reminds me that we’re doing right by our girls by teaching them correct body labels.

If you suspect a child is being abused, you can call The National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD. If you or another adult is being abused, you can call The Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233.