Difficult Conversations with Kids: How to Talk to Your Children About Sex and Parts “Down There”

Why do we substitute cutesy words for sex organs when talking to kids?

By the time most of us reach adulthood, we learn how important it is to call a spade, a spade. And yet, for some reason, many grown-ups regress to awkward pubescent pre-teens when it comes to discussing any and all things related to the area “down below” with their toddlers and children. Of course, the great irony is that most toddlers are developmentally programmed to be fascinated, if not obsessed, with the parts of their body below the belly button and above the knees (and frequently this fascination extends beyond their own bodies to those of everyone they know). What many people don’t know is that the way you talk to your children about their bodies when they’re really little can have a dramatic effect on how comfortable they are with sexuality as adults. (I know, who wants to think about such things when their kid is just out of diapers. But we start saving for college when they’re this young, right? A little foresight goes a long way.)

In her book from From Diapers to Dating, sexuality educator and author Debra W. Haffner, MPH, outlines how using terms like “your privates” or cutesy nicknames sends the message that “these parts of the body are uncomfortable or different,” which can “introduce a sense of shame or guilt about [them].” And while that may sound melodramatic, it makes sense. An elbow is an elbow, a foot a foot, but a penis is a “wee wee,” and a vagina just “down there.” What are they supposed to think? All the stigma around genitals comes from what we learn later in life about sex… or maybe, if Haffner is right, it comes from our own parents refusing to name our body parts what they really are because they were too embarrassed. And it makes sense that if our kids think we’re too embarrassed to even speak the true name of those parts of us, then all topics relating to them — sex, menstruation, masturbation, etc. — are probably off-limits, too. But once puberty comes to town, being able to openly talk about such things is critical for both the parent-child relationship and the healthy development of the child.

I thought I was ahead of the curve, having taught Coraline the correct anatomical terms for what makes girls girls and boys boys. Or at least what I thought was the correct anatomical term. According to Haffner, even “vagina” is incorrect as it refers only to a part of the internal anatomy; she says you have to use “vulva.” Despite this new little nugget of information, I’m going to stick with the former. After all, I am a grown-up. And I blush easily.

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