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What To Call Child's Genitals?

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Dr. Laura,

We have a 22 month old daughter who has begun exploring her body. What do I call her body parts - specifically her genitals - private parts, girly parts, vagina? What would be best for her psychologically?


You're not alone in asking this question. Our culture's simultaneous discomfort and fascination with sex leaves most parents feeling awkward naming their child's sexual organs.This is especially true for girls. While 95% percent of three year old boys know the word penis, only 52% of girls the same age have been given a specific name for their own genitals.

What's best for children psychologically as they learn words for their body parts is that they feel comfortable with their bodies, genitals and all.That means that we need to be as straight-forward in naming their genitals as we are in naming their other body parts. Using euphemisms signals our own discomfort. We're so nervous about our daughter's vagina we can't even name it! You don't want your daughter feeling like any part of her body is unmentionable. Can you imagine if your knee was just referred to as "down there"? 

Another compelling reason to use the actual name for kids' genitals is that if a child is touched inappropriately, they need to be able to clearly communicate to you or anyone else in authority about what happened. If your two year old needed to explain to a caregiver that something was hurting her, "down there" or "woo-hoo" wouldn't help her. And if she needed to tell you that the babysitter touched her in a way that made her uncomfortable, preciseness would be critical.

So all children should be taught the correct terms for their body parts as soon as they can talk. The correct name also lessens shame around sexuality. In this age of "Me Too" it's worth noting that women who feel shame around their body and sexuality are less able to protect themselves from predatory advances. 

My personal view is that our use of derogatory names such as "boob" or "tit" for women's breasts is degrading, and I'm always surprised to hear other women use those words. At the very least, using euphemisms signals to our child that there's something wrong with the real words, and therefore something wrong with those parts of her body.

Our discomfort about girls' genitals is so pervasive that most of us think the word "vagina" refers to the female genitalia. The vagina is actually the internal tube leading from the uterus to the outside of the body, so that's the last part of their anatomy most girls discover. The visible female genitals are actually called the vulva, and the part of the vulva most little girls discover early in their explorations, because it feels so good when they touch it, is the clitoris. So my recommendation is always to teach little girls the anatomically correct names for their body parts, including the names and and locations of their vulva, clitoris, and vagina. Just like you differentiate between your son's penis, testicles and scrotum. 

You can do this in the bathtub by making it part of a game where they point to different parts of their body -- "Where's your shoulder? Where's your elbow? Where's your vulva? Where are your toes?"

If you can't imagine doing this, remember that she won't have any embarrassment or shame unless you signal that there's something shameful. If you want her to feel good about her body and able to protect herself, it's worth working through your own discomfort.



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