There’s a channel 4 documentary about the female body that has sparked a lot of discussion recently, mainly because it features photos of women’s ‘private parts’. I find it disheartening that this documentary is incorrectly named – it appears that even in a documentary about women’s bodies we still can’t correctly name the parts of the female body.
It’s got me thinking about the importance of teaching children about private parts.
Why do we need to teach children about private parts?
Teaching children about their private parts is important to keep them safe – sexual abuse is a real issue and something we need to guard against. However, more than that teaching our children about their bodies is a way to give them ownership and a sense of control of those bodies.
In my work as a GP I have encountered many grown women who do not understand the difference between a vulva and a vagina (much like whoever chose the title for the channel 4 documentary discussed above). I have never yet met a man who doesn’t know the words penis and testicles!
It matters because by refusing to teach girls about their own bodies we
are also teaching them that their body is something to be ashamed of, to
keep secret, to avoid talking about.
That sense of shame is hard to overcome – I once had an elderly lady consult me about her ‘flower and honeypot’. She was mortified and distressed and I was struggling to work out the exact body parts she was referring to. It rendered her powerless – she couldn’t communicate or explain the problem clearly and that is a grown woman.
Imagine how much harder it is for a child trying to explain an incident that has upset her.
We need to give our children – male and female – the confidence and the knowledge to understand and respect their bodies if we want them to be able to keep themselves safe.
How to teach children the names for their private parts
I was at a mum’s group recently and the topic of what we are teaching our children to call their private parts came up. Boys was fairly universal – ‘willy’ being the most common, although many mums hadn’t taught their sons a word for testicles and were using ‘willy’ to describe any part of his genitals.
The range of words used for girls was staggering – front bottom, flower, private bit, vagina, down there, down below, bottom, private part, secret area… the list goes on.
When it got to me, I explained that I have taught my three year old daughter, L, that she has a vulva, a vagina and a bottom and that when she noticed and asked about her brother’s different body parts I explained that he has a penis, testicles and a bottom.
There was a slightly awkward silence and then one of the mums said ‘but aren’t you worried that she might say vagina in public?’ Well, no more so than I’d be about her shouting about her ‘front bottom’ or ‘private part’ in public.
This is obviously a very personal choice, but I want my children to know what their body parts are called – I wouldn’t teach them that their elbow is called a shoulder for example, so why would I teach them that their vulva is a vagina or their testicles are a penis? It makes no sense and they deserve to know the correct names for their own body parts.
It also means that (heaven forbid) if my daughter tells me that someone tried to touch her vulva then I’m not confused or trying to clarify what she’s referring to, I know exactly what she’s telling me and I can respond appropriately.
If you find talking about these things with your children difficult, then the NSPCC has some useful resources to refer to.
How to teach children about protecting their private parts
Whichever terms you choose to teach your children to use for their private parts, it’s important to get across both the concept of privacy and what to do if someone wants to see or touch their private parts.
There are lots of resources to help do this, like the video above, but you can also keep it simple.
Even young children are capable of understanding the concepts of rules and right and wrong. When my then two year old daughter started asking about her body, we named her private parts and I explained that they are just for her. I explained that she can touch them but no-one else is allowed to look at or touch them and that no one should ask her to look at or touch their private parts.
I told her that if anyone tries to look at or touch her vulva, vagina or bottom or if anyone tries to show her their private parts then she should run away and tell me, her daddy or her nursery key-worker right away. We talked about how as long as she tells the truth then she will never get in trouble and that it’s OK to say no and tell someone that that part of her body is only for her.
She loves this concept – we turned it in to sort of a game in the bath where I ask who’s allowed to touch and she says ‘just me’ and then I say ‘what about…’ and name various children and adults and she shouts ‘no, just me’. She has now expanded it to include asking who’s allowed to touch her baby brother J’s private parts and chanting ‘just J and no-one else’.
It’s a light-hearted way of getting the key message across without scaring her too much!
We’ve also talked about times when it might be OK for someone to look or touch, for example if she goes to the doctor because of a problem with her bottom. We talked about what would make that situation OK – if she’d gone about a problem with that area, if the doctor asked permission to look and if me or daddy were there the whole time.
This may not be the perfect approach, but it’s given my daughter (and will in time hopefully also give my son) the language and confidence to talk about and to feel ownership over her own body.
How to teach children about touching their own bodies and avoiding public displays!
Kids are interested in their bodies and even young babies and toddlers will be especially interested in their private parts – after all, these bits are always covered by a nappy so they’re relatively unknown! As soon as the nappy comes off children often grab and touch their genitals – a bit of a nightmare if you’re changing a dirty nappy!
Give them nappy-free time before their bath so they can explore their body if they want to. Normalise it and don’t make it seem like something bad or disgusting, but do teach toddlers to wash their hands after touching their bottom.
By the time your child is a toddler (or older) they are old enough to understand about privacy. Explain that it’s fine to touch their genitals but that they should do this when they’re on their own and not with other people around, as those body parts are just for them.
This is also an opportunity to explain that we don’t talk about our genitals in public and that it’s fine to talk about them with (mummy, daddy, any other trusted adult you wish to include), but that because those body parts are just for your child, they shouldn’t talk about them when out and about.
Keep it simple, keep it fun, keep it relaxed
When teaching children about private parts, try to keep explanations simple and not too intense. The more comfortable we are talking to our children about their bodies, the more comfortable they will feel to talk to us about them in return.
Use any resources that you’re comfortable with and find helpful, but remember that you have the tools you need to teach your children yourself, sometimes books can over-complicate things.
I hope that you’ve found this article helpful, if you have any questions or suggestions for other ways to teach children about private parts then leave me a comment below!
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