kids

'Why it's important to teach your kids the words "vagina" and "penis". And how to do it.'

We comfortably call an elbow what it is – why do we find it so hard to teach the words vulva and penis to children?

I’ve said the words vulva, vagina, penis and testicles so many times over the last 20 years that they are pretty much just like any other words for me.

Although my day job is not always ideal dinner party conversation it does sometimes lead to interesting discussions with parents of younger children.

Adults generally find it embarrassing to talk to other adults (including doctors) about these parts of the body, even though these parts of the body are like all others. They have functions and it just so happens that one of these functions is sex, or sexual touch. Thus the awkward pause after entrée when I’m asked what I do.

There are many important talks we have with our children about safety. Including how to cross the road, not to play with matches or run around the outside of the pool. How many of your safety talks have included the words vulva, penis and bottom? This is the most important conversation using proper words that you can have with your child.

I’ve seen the impact of kids learning for the first time what the proper names of their private parts are and being told about how their private parts belong to them. It’s a simple conversation that can be done in 10 minutes in a fun, non-threatening way.

Sadly, if a child is going to experience sexual abuse it most often takes place before the age of nine. Waiting to tell children about their bodies and the names for the public and private parts does not help them to maintain their innocence. It does not protect them or keep them safe.

I remember working with a boy who was about 12 years old. He had been sent to see me for vague reasons related to his vulnerability and trusting nature. His parents were worried he might be targeted by bullies. We covered a few basic personal safety topics, such as understanding feelings and knowing who to talk to if he was feeling unsafe. During a 30-minute session we covered the names and functions of private body parts. Explaining the names a doctor or teacher might use and clearly going through each of the functions.

Among the many things the penis does, it can also be used for sexual activity. That might be when the penis is put inside a vagina or anus, or it could be when a person uses their mouth. There are rules about this type of touch though and this type of touch is only ok when both people are adults, they both want to and they are in private.

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This is when the boy looked at me and said “This is what Dylan made me do to him in the school toilets.”

Children do not necessarily know that some types of touch are not ok unless we help them to learn about body ownership, public and private parts of the body and types of touch. Sadly this had been occurring for some time and because of all the other factors related to how this abuse was happening, this boy did not know that what was happening was not ok.

In this instance we were able to stop the abuse from occurring and support the children involved.

Our goal though is to prevent this from happening in the first place. It is not the job of children to keep themselves safe, this is the job of adults and often it is the discomfort and embarrassment of adults that stops them from using proper names when talking about private body parts.

So, how can you teach the names of body parts at home? Actually, it’s very simple. All you need is a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Sit down together with your child somewhere quiet and where you can have some privacy.

  • Draw two body outlines (one will be a body with male private parts, the other female).
  • Starting at the top of one body go through and draw all the parts of the body. Explain what they do as you go. Include the private body parts and give a simple explanation of their name and function.
  • Draw swimmers over the private parts to remind the child they are private
  • Repeat for the next body outline
  • Talk about body ownership and touch
  • Ask the child who they can talk to about private body parts

There are many resources to help you have these conversations at home. Personal safety education isn’t a one-off talk. It’s an ongoing discussion that should start in early childhood and continue up until a young person is ready to fly the coup.

To start, or to continue your conversations about child safety join in Day for Daniel on Friday, October 26th.

Day for Daniel is the Daniel Morcombe Foundations national day of action on child safety. The Foundation has produced some new, free, resources to coincide with Day for Daniel including Australia’s Biggest Child Safety Lesson. For more information, or to register for Day for Daniel visit www.danielmorcombe.com.au.

*Names and identifying details have been changed.

Georgina Livingstone is a child protection specialist and has been working with children, young people and parents for over 20 years.