The Checkup: Teaching Children the Real Names for Body Parts




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A presidential election offers many “teachable moments”: a chance to explain democracy, the electoral process and even a certain amount of negative advertising and name-calling. But this may be the first time that a presidential election has called upon parents to discuss slang terms for genitals.

Mind you, the words that young children use for their nether regions are a daily concern in a pediatric office, where we examine children’s bodies. We try to connect with them in language that they understand, but also, often, find ourselves providing the correct names for body parts, sometimes even as we try to figure out exactly what is itchy, or exactly where it hurts.

And sometimes a child is embarrassed that the physical exam extends to the genitals, but it’s usually helpful to explain, in tandem with the parent, that yes, these parts of your body are private, but we need to make sure they’re healthy, so it’s O.K. for the doctor to check them. And in doing so, usually the doctor will name them.

A pediatrician friend whose work in a Southern city included doing evaluations for child sexual abuse told me that the local name for these exams on young girls was “tootie checks.” The clinic staff would start out with whatever term the child was accustomed to using, and then move carefully to more precise language.

Sandy K. Wurtele, a professor of psychology and an associate dean at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, was the lead author on a 1992 research study showing that preschoolers in Head Start knew the correct names for other body parts, but referred to their genitals by a wide array of slang terms, from the familiar (my peepee, my weewee) to the more baroque (my coochie, my piddlewiddle). In this study, children learned the correct names better from their parents than from their teachers.

Ideally, parents should start teaching those terms even before their children can talk, naming the genitals just as they name other body parts in the inevitable daily round of small-child body care and grooming and, yes, diapering and potty time.

“Once they learn the correct terms they’re going to use them,” Dr. Wurtele said. “Often they use them in public and that’s often embarrassing for parents, when they’re at the grocery story in line and their daughter says, ‘my vagina itches.’” But that, of course, is another teachable moment, a chance to explain about the private in private parts (often defined for small children as what a bathing suit covers).

When children are old enough to talk, looking at picture books together is a good way to discuss these issues — the nomenclature, the privacy, the different kinds of bodies. “I made a conscious decision to not use the other names, other than the names that these parts are actually called,” said Robie Harris, a children’s book author (and a friend of mine) whose books include “Who Has What? All About Girls’ Bodies and Boys’ Bodies,” and “It’s Not the Stork! A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends.”

“I think that when we leave out the names vagina, penis, testicles, when we leave those names out, then we’re saying in one way or another that those are parts we can’t talk about,” she said. Once a child knows those terms, she said, some families may want to introduce special family names they like to use.

There are several reasons it’s important for young children to learn the anatomically correct terms for their genitals, Dr. Wurtele said. Knowing the terminology may make children less vulnerable to sexual abuse; prospective offenders may understand that children who are comfortable with the right names for body parts are children whose parents are willing to discuss these subjects, and children who probably will have been told about the kinds of touching that are not O.K.

And if something disturbing does happen, knowing the names can help a child get help. “Without proper terminology, children have a very hard time telling someone about inappropriate touching,” Dr. Wurtele said. “If a child says someone touched her cookie, it would be very difficult for a listener to know.”

But while those safety issues can loom large for worried parents, she said, the most important reason to teach children the right words for body parts — their own and those of others — is more positive and more profound. “It helps children develop a healthy, more positive body image, instead of using nicknames that their genitals are something shameful or bad,” she said. “It also gives children the correct language for understanding their bodies and asking questions about sexual development.”

And that is why I try to model using those anatomical terms in the pediatric office; I want children to understand that they can ask questions about those body parts and get them answered; that we’ll treat those conversations in a medical and matter-of-fact way, and that while there are special rules about privacy, there are no body parts that are dirty or nasty or not to be discussed.

“I often say to parents as a fellow parent and a fellow grandparent, look, it’s sometimes hard to talk about these names and use them, if when you were a child they were not spoken to you,” said Ms. Harris. “But if you take a deep breath and just plunge in, these are the right things for kids to know, that these are parts of their body they can be proud of and it’s O.K. to say these words.”

And of course, once your child knows the right terms, it’s much easier to talk about why some people, either in preschool or on the national stage, might use those other words. You have to take your teachable moments where you find them.

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