I need help. I’m so worried I’ll get this wrong. I want to teach my kids the right things about sex and their bodies but it’s so confusing because I was taught the wrong things when I grew up. Should I use the correct word for body parts? When I grew up I was taught pet names for my genitals and I feel sqeamish about talking about it with them. Should I keep them in the dark about the real words? How should I do this?
Dear Worried Parent,
Thanks for reaching out. It’s normal to feel nervous about talking about sex with your children. Some parents can be so worried about getting it perfect that they say nothing at all! It can be confusing to talk to your children about sex but it’s important to try and be open and honest.
Talking openly about sex with your children means that your children will be more likely to come to you for help or advice. Don’t worry! It doesn’t have to be one big talk about the birds and the birds that you have to get completely perfect. Research shows that you should talk early and often with your child in lots of little conversations. Possibly first bring it up when you are driving somewhere or washing the dishes rather than sit down at a table for an “official talk.” This helps keep it informal, relaxed and doesn’t teach shame about their bodies.
The use of pet names for children’s genitals reflects our cultural discomfort about talking openly and honestly about sex.
Teaching the right words like ‘penis’ and ‘vulva’ to describe boys and girls genitals at the same time they learn about words for their elbows, knees and toes is very important for a child’s education. It normalises the words and the parts of their body. By showing your child that no part of their body is shameful or embarrassing it puts your child on the right path to developing a healthy body image.
If you must use simplified words for your children if they’re toddler age try and also use the correct terms alongside them, say when they’re in the bath for instance. What you are doing is demonstrating how you communicate about the body. This is important for children to watch and learn from. You’ll be teaching your child that all parts of their body are good and all parts have names.
You shouldn’t keep your children in the dark about proper labels for their body. Ignorance can be counter productive. If for instance, a girl experiences unwanted touching, assault or an unhealthy relationship and only has words like “cookie” for her vulva then this can make things very difficult if she asks a teacher for help. How would a teacher know what she means when she said someone wants her cookie?
The wrong words can act as a barrier for help. Ensuring children have proper words for their bodies is a protective measure. Children are more likely to ask for help if they have proper words for their “private parts” because they are equipped with the correct vocabulary to use in any situation.
Make sure you teach your children to use the word vulva for the entire outside parts of their genitals and not the simplified term ‘vagina.’ The word vagina only refers to the inside muscular and tubular part that extends from the vulva to the cervix.
An Australian government resource recommends;
Teach kids that every part of the body has a name and its own ‘job’ to do. Answer their questions. Point out that girls and boys have lots of parts that are the same and some that are different. Boys have a penis, and girls have a vulva (‘vulva’ is the name for the female external sexual parts/genitals). For older children tell them that boys have a scrotum and testicles, and girls also have a clitoris and vagina.
Keep your answers positive, to the point and short. You might want to buy some sex education books for kids to read together. I’ve listed some below..
A great book for parents- Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask): The Secrets to Surviving Your Child’s Sexual Development from Birth to the Teens, Richardson & Schuster.
For children aged 5 to 8-
It’s Not the Stork: A Book about Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends, Robie H. Harris & Michael Emberley.
For children aged 8 to 12-
For pre-teens and teens-