From about the age of one, kids start learning to label the different parts of their bodies.
Highly profound lyrics such as ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’, and ‘you put your right hand in, you put your right hand out, you put your right hand in, and you shake it all about’, aid in what can be a long and arduous learning process.
They seem to go back and forth, one day confidently pointing to where their head is, and the other running into walls, causing you to wonder whether there’s actually anything going on inside their head.
But when teaching young children about their bodies, we often fail to adequately address their ‘private parts’. Some parents think that saying words like ‘penis’ and ‘vulva’ to children compromises their innocence, while others think teaching the anatomically correct words too young will lead to awkward situations, because kids don’t know when it’s appropriate to use these terms.
And let’s be honest – it’s somewhat disconcerting to hear a three-year-old talk about a ‘bagina’.
"Hey Mumma, do I have a bagina?" Image via iStock.
But there are a number of evidence-based reasons to talk to your kids about their genitals using the anatomically correct terms. Experts argue that by the age of four, kids should know and understand words like penis, testicles, scrotum, vagina and vulva. Here are two crucial reasons why.
Euphemisms create shame.
When we use nicknames for our genitals, or avoid talking about them all together, we inadvertently convey the message that these body parts are inherently different from the others, and are something to be shy about.
This is particularly a problem for young girls. Dr Kathryn Berry, a clinical psychologist at The Quirky Kid Clinic, told Essential Baby that there's a gender discrepancy when it comes to knowledge about the genitals. She explained that in a study conducted with three-year-old children, "only half the girls... knew the name of their vagina or vulva whereas almost all the boys knew the word penis."
This has long terms implications, such as feelings of "shame and embarrassment", and can leave girls with an unhealthy view of their bodies.
Self-esteem expert Anea Bogue agrees, arguing "when we create fear in girls about their bodies, they become much less likely to stay connected to it and believe they are in charge of it."
Watch the Mamamia team draw their 'lady gardens'. Which, in hindsight, we definitely should have described WITHOUT using a euphemism.
Using the correct terms is important for safety.
Laura Palumbo, a sexual violence prevention specialist, told The Atlantic that teaching children anatomically correct terms is crucial for their safety. Teaching these terms "promotes positive body image, self confidence, and parent-child communication; discourages perpetrators; and, in the event of abuse, helps children and adults navigate the disclosure and forensic interview process", she says.
In light of the widespread abuse within the Catholic Church, child psychologist Anthony Rizzuto says the issue of language is highly, highly important. He told The Atlantic that language played a major role in getting victims to come forward. He says that during investigations in Boston, "We described the relevant research and the reasons for using anatomically correct terms --to give children the language they need should they need to report, especially should they need to report to law enforcement or the department of social services."
In the years following, reports were tracked, and they demonstrated "an increase in children who were self-disclosing ... Children got comfortable, and started coming to teachers and parents."
There are a number of other reasons to accurately describe sexual organs when teaching your child about the different parts of the body. Having a crystallized, clear understanding of the genitals can help set clear boundaries about what is public and what is private, as well as what is okay and what isn't. It can also be an important precursor to complex discussions about sexuality and sexual identity later on in life.
Ultimately, talking to your kids about their genitals, using the correct terms, is undeniably empowering. Using colloquialisms or euphemisms or only speaking in vague terms implies that genitals aren't something to be spoken about. When we joke or act shy while referring to 'private parts', kids think talking about their genitals is going to get them in trouble. And that's the last thing any of us want.
We don't want kids to feel like they're going to get into trouble for talking about their genitals. Image via iStock.
So even if it seems like the norm to use terms like 'front bottom' and 'willy', be confident that by using the correct terms, you're giving your child the opportunity to own and understand their body in a way previous generations haven't been able to.
And when your toddler looks you straight in the eye and enquires about a 'bagina', try not to laugh, look them straight back, and calmly explain that what they probably mean is 'vulva'.