How to talk about private parts with toddlers
A few weeks ago on NBC’s Up All Night, Reagan and Chris lovingly avoided referring to their daughter’s private parts. Reagan’s mother, a psychiatrist and published parenting author, was horrified, telling Reagan that she must take the time to carefully christen her daughter’s genitals – with a name that inspires whimsy and pride – like she had done when baptizing Raegan’s vagina “Bobo.”
My girls don’t have a “Bobo,” and it took my husband and me some time to decide what exactly they did have (something that didn’t make our eyes roll). If it were up to him, we’d never mention private areas, but that’s just not practical. And words like “vagina,” “penis,” and “anus” still make me giggle. When our oldest was one-and-a-half we finally found inspiration from two Australian friends and settled on “fanny” for the front and “bum” for the back. To me “fanny” seemed both innocent and inoffensive; it wasn’t clinical and it didn’t make me laugh.
Frankly, the whole introduction of the private parts still makes me uncomfortable. Until recently, almost nothing in my children’s lives has been private: they have breastfed in crowded restaurants, gone potty with the bathroom door open, and have no sense of embarrassment when they flash their undies to the entire playground. However, given their insistence on discussing their unmentionables, I know it’s time for me to overcome this minor hurdle.
To help me along this journey, I’ve started my asking my mommy friends what they call their sons’ and daughters’ private parts. The responses range from the anatomically correct (vagina, penis, vulva, testicles) to the downright silly (fandango, hot dog, winkie). Many parents refer to the general areas as simply “girl parts” or “boy parts,” while others adopt foreign terms (zizi, zizette, fesses, ochinchin). Nicknames are common (Petunia, Pajarito) as are various repeated sounds (wee wee, jay jay, vee vee, fu fu, and pee pee). Interestingly, the anus is almost universally called some variation of “bottom” (bum, bummy, bum bum, bootie) with the occasional tush or tushie.
The vast scope of responses is telling; parents require so many different terms because it’s an uncomfortable subject, which most of us would rather wait to broach until the child can read so we can hand him or her a manual. (Hmm … maybe I should have invested in the My Baby Can Read series?) Since some of us were raised with a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach about our private parts, it can be quite a challenge to change our own mindset.
Dr. Gail Saltz, psychiatrist and bestselling author of the children’s book Amazing You!, understands that some parents may need nicknames to make the casual conversation less intimidating. Yet most parenting experts, Dr. Saltz included, recommend using the technical terms, such as vagina, vulva, penis, and scrotum so that kids are not confused when they hear those words. In fact, using the clinical terms normalizes the situation and takes away any shame associated with private parts, which may help your child feel more comfortable coming to you with questions regarding his or her sexuality in the future.
Where and when to start?
According to Dr. Saltz, the conversation about the body parts and sexuality can begin as soon as the baby’s umbilical cord detaches. For babies, it is simply pointing out the different parts: “Right now I am washing your feet. Now I am scrubbing your back. Now we wash the vagina.”
When the baby grows into a toddler and begins asking about the differences between boys and girls or notices that mommy has boobies, but daddy doesn’t, it is time to broaden the discussion. A book, such as Amazing You!, can help foster this dialog, especially for those of us that have difficulty voicing the technical terms. The book not only explains in preschool friendly language the differences between the sexes, but also the beginnings of how babies are made, without the nitty-gritty details. Best of all, using a book gives parents a prescribed script, so we are less likely to stumble over the more awkward terminology. Dr. Saltz further maintains that as soon as your child is left in the care of someone other than you, parents should begin the discussion on what “private” means. A simple statement like, “These parts are called ‘private’ because only you are allowed to touch them,” may suffice.
What about masturbation?
While no parent wants to walk in on her child playing with himself or herself, it’s bound to happen sooner than we expect (ultrasounds have shown babies touching their genitals while still in the womb!). “We are born as sexual beings,” Dr. Saltz explains. “We are interested in our bodies.” It’s okay for young ones to fondle themselves, and it is critical that the parent not shame a child for doing so. However, it is also a private activity that should be done in private – this is what we need to emphasize, she says.
Whether your child has a fanny, winkie, vagina, or penis, the “private part” conversation is an essential one to begin, and continue to revisit (and one we cannot avoid).
What do Babble parents do? Click here for an amusing look at how they refer to their kids’ private parts