Wee-wee, bottom, heinie, chest, squatty, cooter, vajayjay, twat, kitty, peach, lady-parts, lady bits, wiener, nuts, balls, pointy-thing, ding dong, down there.
These are just a few of the creative, nicer words used to describe genitalia by both children and adults alike. When I asked my Facebook friends to share stories of their experiences with talking to kids about private parts, I received over 25 stories in the first hour about children blurting, misunderstanding, being curious, being avoidant and making interesting onomatopoeic sounds. Here’s just a sample of what I heard:
My son had his hand in his pants (do all boys just innately do this?), so I asked if he had to go potty. He said “no,” so I reminded him (again) that touching himself like that is for private time. He just looked at me and said, “[name withheld] penis BIIIIIG.” I had the hardest time keeping a straight face and didn’t know what to say. I could only muster a “mmm-hmmm” and left it at that.
My two-year-old daughter has taken to standing next to her brother when he uses the potty before bath at night. She looks down at herself, grabs her belly button and makes a “psssss” sound.
My son took a road trip with some friends of ours, one of whom was a breastfeeding mom. When he walked into their hotel room, he saw her breast pump and said, “hey! My mom has one of those!” My friend said “oh, yeah?” He said, “yeah! When she uses it, it looks like this …” And THEN, he proceeded to make hand gestures and noises similar to that of milking a cow, only with human nipples.
My 3-year-old: “Mama, girls no have penises. Girls have bulbas (vulvas) – because when dey babies, dey penises fall off. They don’t know what to do with penises. Only boys know how to have a penis, so dey don’t fall off.” Clearly we went wrong somewhere …
Yes, clearly our job as parents of young children is to keep wild little imaginations in check, offering truths, rather than fantasies about how penises and vaginas develop, why they exist, and how we use them. Here are three great articles from 2013 and 2014 that have contributed to the conversation about reproductive anatomy: here, here and here. All experts seem to agree (myself included): talking about private parts more rather than less and using the correct terms for genitalia is strongly recommended (here’s a story about a local Shawnee dad who disagreed). But what do we tell them about their little vaginas, uteruses, breasts, penises, testicles, scrotums …? It depends what you are trying to accomplish in the moment:
FIRST, quickly evaluate in your mind what purpose/need you are meeting when you answer:
- Normalization (preventing shame about body and encouraging physiological awareness and self-care)
- Prevention of abuse (for info on the current statistics and grooming process of sexual predators, visit The U.S. Dept. of Justice NSOPW)
- Relationship education (teaching kids about how to appropriately relate to others’ bodies, both sexually AND non-sexually)
- Welcoming a sibling and teaching about nurture (diaper changes and breastfeeding)
SECOND, reflect or parrot back to the child what they’re wondering matter-of-factly and without judgement. Watch your vocal tone, how quickly you respond, and voice volume – kids smell fear. For example, “oh, you’re wondering about how it is that girls don’t have penises.” Once you confirm what your child is asking or supposing, you minimize your risk of sharing too much based on your own assumption – which is probably what most of us fear when confronted with topics like this. You also let the child know that you’re listening to them, nurturing your bond and leaving the communication lines open for the future.
THIRD, educate. For very small children, stick to simple, concrete parts and mechanics: “penises and vaginas and urethras and rectums/anuses do this and that,” etc. Need a refresher on basic anatomy or want to review some facts? Check out Kids Health: there’s even an interactive map of male and female reproductive anatomy and function. It’s never too early to look at this stuff with your kids and make it normal; statistics are showing that girls in the U.S. are beginning to start menstruation as early as 8-9 years old in the last decade (look here, here, or here). Amazing You by Gail Saltz is a great book for teaching basic anatomy and simple developmental differences (e.g. pubic hair versus no hair) with simple, age-appropriate illustrations.
For young but thoughtful children who can think more abstractly, answer their questions or clarify their perceptions, but let them do the guiding. For example, when my husband and I (pregnant with our third child) explained that babies come from sperm and an egg “talking to each other” and that men have sperm in their testicles, women have eggs in their ovaries, we waited several days for our five-year-old boy to process and produce the question, “if they’re in different bodies, how do they meet?” Waiting for your child to pace the conversation lets them have control, giving room for the brain to be curious without being overwhelmed or scared by too much information at once. What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg is a fabulous book for explaining these simple facts to young children, and it is inclusive of family structures of all types. Both the Johnson County Library Network and the Kansas City Library, as well as the surrounding metro libraries, have several copies of both of these books.
For older elementary (4th grade and up) girls, the American Girl Store at Oak Park Mall (if you dare venture there with your little princess) carries great books on puberty, self-care, and emotional well-being. At the beginning of this month, a news story skyrocketed Toys”R”Us sales for the You and Me Change My Diaper Doll with this article and Today Show coverage: Doll With Penis Shocks Some Parents. As a field test, I bought two of these little boy dolls and presented them to my 5-year-old son (see photo right), and daughter, 7 years old, in preparation for the birth of their new baby brother. Delighted and animated, they learned to change diapers, feed with a bottle, etc. They even asked for a breastfeeding demonstration by yours truly (which was then mirrored) and are now co-sleeping with their babies by their own initiation. Both babies even have names. A word of caution: the baby’s penis is grossly disproportionate to the real thing (on the small side) which I wasn’t expecting considering the controversy over being “anatomically correct”; also, the doll pees and poops water in unexpectedly large amounts after drinking tap water from a bottle. Beware your wood furniture! The doll does not come with a pee-pee teepee, thus providing a real-life example of what happens when you change a baby boy’s diaper without appropriate caution. That said, at no time did either child notice anything unusual or disgusting about the baby boy having a penis; it was just par for the course. If disgust were to enter the picture, it likely would have been from an adult.
LASTLY, address your own reservations, preconceptions and discomfort with genitalia. Answering the following questions may help you identify any potential hang-ups with teaching your child healthy sexuality and boundaries:
- What did you learn about private parts when you were growing up?
- How did you learn about your own anatomy and sexuality?
- What does your relationship with your romantic partner communicate to your children about appropriate touch and loving affection?
One final note: With the statistics for sexual abuse, particularly for girls, being so high in the United States, it’s highly likely that many moms reading this blog are victims themselves of childhood sexual abuse, rape, or have had extremely negative sexual experiences (whether in the locker room in middle school or in your marriage). Not addressing these issues as an adult could prevent you from being able to parent your children effectively when it comes to sexuality. Consider talking privately with a professional counselor about your experience or finding a local support group (try MOCSA for survivors support groups).