What should I teach my daughter to call her private parts?

Text caption "What should I teach my daughter to call her private parts?" and a mother and her two children sitting on a couch looking at an ipad.

As parents, we have a lot of responsibility. You know the words you use have the potential to leave a lasting imprint on your child, so when it comes something a little delicate like talking about genitals, you might start to panic.

Some parents find choosing an approach to naming genitals fraught with uncertainty and discomfort — especially parents of girls. If you’re struggling with questions like “What should I teach my daughter to call her private parts?” or ” What’s age appropriate and what language will serve my daughter well?” you’re certainly not alone.

The words you use have the potential to leave a lasting imprint.

So, how do you cut through the uncertainty and find an approach you’re comfortable using? The first step is to get familiar with your options and their potential impact.

So let’s dive in so you can choose an approach today!

Euphemisms and “child-friendly” names

Our society has become more open and progressive in many ways, but it seems taboos and discomfort around body education and naming have stayed with us.

A study published in the Journal of Counseling and Human Development in 2011 found that while close to 90 per cent of children the study surveyed could accurately name their non-genital body parts by age two, only 10 per cent knew the correct terms for penis, breasts and vulva (vagina was also considered accurate in this study).

There are countless euphemisms and made up names used by families in place of vulva/vagina.

There is the reasonably benign term”private parts” and the slightly jazzier “ladybits”.

Taking this up a notch you’ve got the “Minnie”, “Wee wee”, “Fairy”, “Fan”, “Foof”, “Twinkle” and “Twinkie”; not forgetting “Snooky”, “Moomoo”, and “Hoohaa”. Some parents opt for words that rhyme with vagina, like “Fine China”. This list is just scraping the surface.

While it might not be your intention when offering a “child-friendly” name for genitals, these names can stick with people well into their adulthood.

In the early 2000s, a university student named Rachel experienced this phenomenon firsthand. “It was years ago now, but the moment is etched into my memory.”

“I called my Internet Service Provider, and the tech support guy wanted me to share my password — this was back when companies still asked for passwords over the phone. When I remembered what it was, I almost hung up, but I really needed to get the issue fixed. I had no choice but to tell him my password — front-bottom.”

Surprisingly, front-bottom still sits on the list of names parents use instead of vagina or vulva.

Rachel explained, “It was the name for vagina we always used at home. I’ve never used it since.”

Surprisingly, front-bottom still sits on the list of names parents use instead of vagina or vulva.

What is the correct terminology?

If you were born in the 1980s or 90s, there’s a reasonable chance you were taught one word to name all of your downstairs private body parts.

Vagina.

But it turns out using the term ‘vagina’ to refer to your private parts isn’t completely accurate. Your vagina is the muscular tube leading from your external genitals to your cervix.  The external parts of your genitals that you can see are technically your ‘vulva’.

Your vulva has a lot going on. It includes the mons pubis (Latin for “pubic mound”), labia majora (outer lips), labia minora (inner lips), clitoris, and the opening of your urethra (the bit where you wee) and the opening of your vagina.

It seems a little weird that we have no single word for the entire female sex organ. Lack of a convenient word is possibly one reason why vagina became a one-word catch-all.

What will happen if you teach your daughter accurate terms?

So what will happen if you choose to drop a v-word and use proper names when talking about your child’s genitals?

Nothing bad! The worst case scenario is that you may have an occasional awkward or funny moment when the terms are used out of context or very loudly in the grocery store.

Caption "The real impact of using accurate and descriptive words to describe genitals is positive and far-reaching." and three young girls happily sitting together on some grass.

The real impact of using accurate and descriptive words to describe genitals is positive and far-reaching.

You’ll teach them facts

Your child will learn that their vulva is — their vulva. And their labia is their labia. This is no different from a child understanding an elbow is an elbow. Labels are super important to kids. They help children make sense of the world around them.

Using descriptive and accurate terms doesn’t mean you’re sexualising your child or their body parts. The words vulva and vagina don’t mean sex. They mean genitals. You’re just using proper body part names; nothing more and nothing less.

You’ll eliminate confusion

By using accurate names, you’ll reduce confusion and embarrassment. Imagine your child trying to explain to their childcare worker that they’ve got an itchy “Snooky” or a problem with their “Twinkie”. Or worse yet imagine the other kids in your child’s class or playgroup receiving the news your child has a “front-bottom”. Laugher, confusion, and tears are bound to follow.

By giving your child standard and accurate names to use they’ll be able to express themselves clearly. You’ll take the potential for misunderstanding and embarrassment out of the picture.

You’ll help protect them

Teaching your child accurate terms for their genitals can help you protect them from sexual abuse.

It’s uncomfortable to think about and sounds dramatic but the better your child can describe their body parts, the more capable they are of communicating if someone has hurt them.

If a child says in passing that a person has touched “Minnie” there is a risk that the one precious moment of disclosure could be missed because the meaning of the term used isn’t clear. The person they’ve chosen to share the information with (like another child, parent, family member or carer) may not understand and overlook a vital piece of information.

You’re taking out negative body messages

What does using a made-up name for your vulva (or vagina if you prefer) really mean for your child? Ultimately it says your vagina or vulva is “unmentionable”. It’s not important enough to name, and it’s difficult to understand. It might even imply (even if you don’t mean it to) that there’s something bad or rude about your child’s body and they shouldn’t talk about their genitals.

A healthier message is that private parts are private, but they’re not so private you can never mention them. They are part of your body, have a purpose and a name, and need to stay clean and healthy.

By using accurate labels, you remove the opportunity for a sense of body shame and confusion to creep in. You’ll also set a strong foundation for a positive body image.

A study from Ovarian Cancer Action in 2015 showed that two-thirds of women they surveyed between the ages of 18-24 felt too embarrassed to say words like “vagina” to a doctor. Studies like this are a powerful reminder that early messages can have a lingering impact.

What terms are best to teach your kids (and when should you do it)?

For girls, the most useful and practical approach is to teach them vulva, labia, clitoris and vagina. Now you might be thinking “that’s ridiculous, no two-year-old needs to know what a clitoris is!” But stay with me here…

Not all the terms are necessary at the very beginning. It comes down to making use of what many call “teachable moments”. These are moments that naturally come up and give you an excellent opportunity to teach your child something.

Starting with the basics, the first word to teach is vulva (meaning all the outside bits you can see). You can start this habit when changing nappies. “Oh, I’m just going to clean your vulva”, or “make sure you wipe your vulva” when your daughter starts toilet training.

As your daughter gets older, she will probably become more curious about her body parts and start asking you lots of questions. When she asks, you can share more.

Lots of girls will ask about the “button” in their vulva. It’s a reasonable question — it sticks out and looks a bit odd. Just be frank and say “It’s called a clitoris.” That’s it. No age inappropriate speech about female pleasure required. You’re just letting them know “that bit of your body is called a clitoris” instead of it remaining a funny looking mysterious body part that not even grown-ups seem to know what to call.

The same with labia. If something comes up, you can just share the name — it’s no big deal.

When your child asks (and they will) how do babies get out of your belly, you can tell them “they travel down a tube called a vagina and come out through the opening in my vulva.”

Are these conversations going to cause awkwardness and discomfort? Maybe for the grown-up involved, but little people take it all in their stride as they form their picture of the world. They might be a bit sceptical (“really, are you sure babies come out there?”) but they’ll only get uncomfortable if they’re picking up on cues from you.

Over to you

Seemingly small choices we make early in our child’s life can have a lasting impact on their world view and personal perception. How we refer to our daughter’s genitalia is one of those seemingly innocuous but ultimately meaningful choices.

Giving your daughter an accurate set of labels to use for their body parts gives them a proper understanding of their body and makes them better communicators. It sets a strong foundation for a positive body image and can potentially help protect them from abuse.

It also means they’ll never be caught out using the word “front-bottom”.

What approach have you taken?

Let us know in the comments.

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