Why It’s Important To Teach Your Kids Real Names For Private Parts

Experts say it’s time to scrap nicknames for our privates and teach our kids the real words. Why is it so crucial for their safety and when should we start?


When I informally polled my mom friends about what they call private parts in their households, some cute and hilarious answers came out: willy, doodle and winky for penis, foo foo, cookie and flower for vagina. These nicknames might sound super-cute when they come out of our little ones’ mouths, but experts warn against using them. Instead, they say we should be teaching our children the anatomically correct words for their private parts.

In this article, I’ll discuss:

  • why we should teach our kids the words “penis” and “vagina.”
  • when and how to introduce the correct names for private parts.
  • when kids should start covering up in public.
  • how to talk to kids about body safety and consent.
  • what do if you already use nicknames for private parts
  • Why we should teach our kids the correct names for private parts


Why we should teach our kids the correct names for private parts


Many parents feel a sense of shame when using the real words for private parts because they grew up in a time or a household where those words considered shameful and dirty. But experts say there are several reasons why your kids should be familiar with the words penis, scrotum, testicles, vagina, vulva and nipples:


1. They’re crucial for conversations around body safety and consent.


As horrifying as it is for parents to think about protecting their children from sexual predators, studies show that the first line of defense is to teach them correct anatomical names.

Predators are less likely to target children who know these names because it indicates they’ve been educated about body safety and sexuality. Also, knowing how to describe abuse increases children’s chances of being understood and taken seriously. If a child says, “He touched my cookie,” the disclosure is much less likely to receive a supportive response than if she said, “He touched my vagina.”


2. They’re a great starting point for open discussions about sex and sexuality.


Research shows that children who know anatomical names for their private parts have healthier body images and attitudes towards their own sexuality. Parents who want to establish open lines of communication with their children about sex and sexuality from a young age will benefit from teaching them the real names.


3. They can help identify medical issues.


When it’s itchy or ouchy down there, it helps for kids to be able to identify exactly what hurts. I’ve had to coach my girls by saying, “Does it hurt here or here?” but they’re now able to tell me if it’s their vulva or bottom that’s sore. Children who get frequent urinary infections can also learn to identify that it hurts when they pee. It may seem obvious to us adults, but it’s a confusing world down there for little ones and they need our guidance.


When and how to introduce private part names


Children are never too young to hear the accurate words for their private parts and should be able to correctly name them all by the time they start school. You can start identifying their body parts in the bath when they’re babies by saying, “This is your head, these are your shoulders, this is your belly, this is your penis and this is your bottom.” Use the same tone of voice for all body parts. If you giggle or sound embarrassed when you name their privates, your children are likely to do the same. Avoid referring to the genitals as rude, dirty or naughty. Remember – children don’t have any preconceptions about the sexual nature of these body parts.


When kids should start covering up in public


Almost every parent goes through an internal battle trying to figure out when it’s no longer appropriate for their child to be naked in public. While there’s no exact age that’s right for every child, a report by by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network suggests that children start becoming more aware of the differences between boys and girls between the ages of four and six. This age is probably a good time to start covering up in public.

When my twins were four, I started holding up towels to shield them when they were changing out of their swimsuits in public places. They asked me, “Why are you doing that?” and I explained gently that the parts that were under their swimsuits were private and we should cover them up. If they forgot, I just reminded them gently and they soon started wanting to cover up on their own. By the same token, young kids may touch their private parts because it soothes them – like sucking their thumb or cuddling a blankie. While this behavior is developmentally appropriate, you may need to explain to them that those parts are private and they should only touch them when they’re by themselves.


How to talk to kids about body safety and consent


Teaching your kids that some parts of their bodies are private is also the foundation for discussions about consent. You can explain to young children that no one is allowed to touch the parts that are under their diapers or their swimsuits unless it’s to clean or examine them medically and that those individuals should ask permission first. You can practice potential scenarios with your kids. For example, you can say, “If a child at preschool shows you his bottom and laughs, say, ‘Stop! I don’t like it. Private parts are private.’ Then go tell a teacher right away and tell me when you get home.” This scenario is simple without being scary for young kids. As your children get older, you should revisit the topic frequently and add more information. You can say, “If anyone tries to touch you inappropriately, yell ‘No!’ and run to tell a trusted adult right away.” You should also answer any questions your kids have as openly and honestly as possible in age-appropriate terms.


What do if you already use nicknames for private parts


If you say willy and foo foo in your house, don’t panic! It’s never too late to teach kids the correct words. You can tell them that these are the words you used when they were babies, but you think they’re grown up enough now to use the adult words. You’ll need to repeat the real words numerous times until they stick (so get ready to stifle your discomfort if it’s not something you grew up with), but you’ll eventually get there as a family. Hang in there, parents. What doesn’t kill us from embarrassment makes us stronger!


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Want to know how to tackle more tough topics? Read How To Talk to Your Tween About Sexting and How To Talk to Your Kids About Death.