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What To Call Child's Genitals?

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!

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 we teach them "toe, ankle, foot" or "apple, peach, banana." 

One last thought.  Another compelling reason to use the actual name for kids’ genitals is for clarity in communication.  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.  You don’t want your daughter feeling like that part of her body is unmentionable.

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Anonymous commented on 02-Feb-2011 04:16 PM
Thank you, i have met with much critism on this subject in our homeschool co-op they wouldnt even name the female parts even though penis was one of the first words to be entered on a 'your body' chart.
Laura commented on 07-Feb-2011 09:31 AM
Thank you! It's always bothered me that people use the term "vagina" when referring to the vulva. It's still difficult to talk about nonchalantly, knowing she's one day going to blurt something embarrassing out at the grocery store. lol
Megan commented on 30-Aug-2011 09:41 AM
Before I even had a chance to give a different 'name' to my son's genitalia, he was calling it a penis. And now I'm glad that I just left it at that. It's specific, and its accurate so really it doesn't bother me nearly as much as I though it would! I
will now do the same with my newborn daughter once she is at the proper age. Thanks for the article.

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