By Kathryn Davis Tidd, MSW, LICSW | The Village Family Service Center
The list of alternate (read: slang) names for genitals is endless. Some are cutesy (think snack foods) and others cringey, but the takeaway for me is this: How can we possibly know what a young child is referencing when they talk about their genitalia with code names? We can’t.
Research over the last 30 years has convincingly and concretely recommended using the anatomically correct names for our children’s genitals: penis, vulva, vagina, anus.
Why, you ask? Research supports the following facts:
- When we use anatomically correct names, our children are learning about their genitals the same way they are learning about their hearts, lungs, and bones. By destigmatizing genitals, children get the message early on that their body is nothing to be ashamed about. When children aren’t ashamed, they are curious and ask questions, which promotes open communication with their caregivers. When upwards of 60% of child sexual abuse victims never tell anyone about their abuse, promoting open communication in toddlerhood is necessary.
- Children like to learn. It is empowering and fun and a major boost in both confidence and mastery. Empowering them about their bodies promotes body positivity, which gives opportunities for assertive communication about body safety, questions, and concerns. Using correct language about genitals allows children to communicate about potential medical problems and inappropriate touch without question or confusion from caregivers, teachers, and other adults in your children’s life.
- In 2016, the CDC reported that using anatomically correct names decreases long-term chances of risky sexual behaviors, which is directly correlated to sexual victimization. This is supported by research out of the Netherlands, which starts teaching comprehensive sexual and reproductive education in kindergarten and has a child sexual abuse rate far lower than the United States.
- The inaccurate use of genitalia makes it difficult for children to accurately detail inappropriate touch to professional advocates, which can interfere with accurate charges for sexual offenders. While parents hope this will not ever apply to them, it is a problem that could drastically change the course of legal justice for sexually exploited children.
I could not find any research that suggests any negative, unwanted, or harmful effects of using anatomically accurate language with our children. Saving yourself the “embarrassment” of having your child inappropriately tell his teacher or grocery store clerk that his penis is private is understandably appealing (full disclosure – I know this from personal experience), but it doesn’t come close to outweighing the immediate and long-term benefits of normalizing and discussing all body parts as soon as our children start noticing and asking about them.
Kathryn Davis Tidd, MSW, LICSW, is an in-office therapist at The Village's Moorhead office. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work in 2010 from University of Texas at Arlington and a Master’s degree in Clinical Social Work from Michigan State University in 2014. She has experience working with people across the life span, from young children through the end of life. Special areas of interest include sexual behavior problems, pregnancy loss/infertility, and parenting skills. In addition to working with children and families, she enjoys running, spending time with her family, being outdoors, cooking, and home renovation projects.