Anatomy 101: Big Words for Little People

When you have your first child something strange happens to your use of language. Your voice goes higher. You start adding -y’s to the end of your words. You make silly sounds and you make up ridiculous nicknames to call your baby. Your voice goes into singsong mode and you can’t seem to make it stop. But is all this baby talk good for the language development of your child?

The latest research says yes – extending your vowel sounds and making your sentences into more of a song help a child develop their own language skills. The caveat? You should still be using real words – not made up, nonsensical words. One of the most common areas of discussion that parents like to use euphemisms for when speaking to their children are body parts. Many parents feel uncomfortable using the formal terminology when discussing a person’s most private areas, but experts say that isn’t the way to go. 

The Why


Parents give different names to a person’s genitalia because they often feel it is inappropriate to use the correct terminology. They feel their children are ‘too young’ to use the medical terms – penis, vagina, vulva, etc. But experts disagree. They note that the most important reason parents should use the correct terms for these parts is to help with the disclosure of sexual abuse. It also helps children to grow up with a respect for their bodies and others’ bodies, hopefully helping to prevent or helping to disclose sexual assault as they grow older.

Audrey Rastin, a manager at Boost Child Prevention and Intervention in Toronto, Canada, explains that using the correct terminology helps children better communicate when something outside of a healthy and normal relationship is happening. Using euphemisms can often lead to confusion, especially if that child is trying to tell someone outside of a direct family member that is unaware of the terms used within the family what is happening behind closed doors. This cannot only help the communication aspect between adults and children, but it can also disclose the abuse sooner helping to prevent a prolonged incident. 

In addition to abuse prevention, using correct terms for body parts helps promote a positive self-image. Rastin noted that, “We don’t use pseudonyms for other body parts. No part of our body should be secret, shameful, or embarrassing.” Promoting a positive body image at a young age is important. Research has shown that a positive body image helps to prevent unhealthy habits and eating disorders, as well as promote a happier lifestyle of your growing child. 

The How


Communicating with your child using the anatomically correct terms for their genitals is important but that doesn’t make it less uncomfortable for most parents. There is no real way to get around this feeling other than to put aside one’s own feelings for the safety of your child. Experts agree that when parents start to point out the typical body parts during infancy – eyes, ears, nose – they should also start to point out the terms for genitalia. There is no better way to get both you and your child comfortable with the terms than to start sooner rather than later. 

If a parent does feel uncomfortable using the medical terms for these most private areas, they can use a euphemism – as long as they couple it with the correct term. No matter what, parents should be using the anatomically correct terms with their children when discussing body parts despite their initial feelings of discomfort. Their child’s safety may depend on it one day. 

Sometimes simply stating the terms as you point out the body part isn’t enough. Many experts, like Kate Rohendenberg, a sexual prevention educator in New Hampshire, like to use anatomically correct baby dolls when talking with children in their classroom. She often has the children help change the baby’s diaper while discussing the body parts.

The Talk


How you approach the discussion of body parts and appropriate relationships with others will depend on your child’s age. Here are some tips about how you can begin the discussion with your child about their genitals, appropriate versus inappropriate touching, and how to talk to a safe adult about a harmful situation. 

Infants/Toddlers

Children with little to no language are the perfect first receptors to starting early communication in anatomically correct language. There are a few ways you can present this information:

  • Use the correct term any time you are in the bath or pointing out body parts, just like you would for more general areas of a body like arms, eyes, and nose.
  • As your infant grows into a toddler, point out parts on their baby dolls and discuss the genital region.
  • Read books like the ones listed above to help bridge the discussion about genitalia and appropriate relationships.

Preschoolers/School Age

At this stage your child should have the vocabulary to express their private parts with the correct terms. Now is the time that parents should begin discussing keeping private parts private, appropriate relationships, and how to talk to someone if they are being harmed.

  • Be sure to reiterate the importance of keeping private parts covered when in public situations. Note that only certain, safe persons in certain situations should be able to see these parts of their bodies.
  • Discuss different situations that are appropriate versus inappropriate. For example, an appropriate situation may be when a doctor needs to check the genital region and the parent is in the room with them. An inappropriate situation may be when an adult or another child asks to see or touch their genitalia.
  • Explain to your child how they should tell a parent, a teacher, or another person you deem as safe if they feel they are being harmed or if they are uncomfortable in a situation. It is important to remind your child that no matter what, they will not get in trouble if they come to you or another person with this information, even if the person hurting them tells them otherwise.

Middle School/High School

Once your child has reached an age in which they can acutely determine if a situation is appropriate or inappropriate, it is a good idea to remind them to watch for signs of others who may be in unsafe situations.


In discussing the anatomically correct terms with children, parents can be promoting important communication between adults and children. This helps their child to recognize if something inappropriate is happening to them and to feel more comfortable disclosing this information if necessary. Rohdenberg notes that whenever discussing genitalia with children the most important thing to remind them is these areas are “private parts.” In addition, children should not be shamed when using the correct terminology – this only teaches children that those words are wrong, and they are less likely to come forward with an account of abuse if they think they will get in trouble when describing it. 

Although these words – penis, vagina, and vulva – make many parents uncomfortable it is important to begin the discussion with children at an early age. Although we all hope our child will never fall victim to sexual abuse, we need to do our part to help keep our children safe, and communication is key to prevention. 

Looking for other ways to talk to your kid about these tough issues? Check out 6 Ways to Talk to your Kids about Sexual Abuse here on Daily Mom.


Photo credits: Ashley Sisk, Andreas Photography, Lauren Lomsdale, Kristen LoveScott Swigart

Sources: Today’s Parent, Globe and Mail, The AtlanticAbout Kid’s Health, National Sex Offender Public Website

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Lauren Lomsdale

Lauren is a full-time mom of three girls, who also happens to run her own in-home preschool. She loves to write, run, yoga-it-out, and keep fit. She’s kind of crunchy in her homeschooling, cloth diapering, and natural products sort of way, but she also loves Starbucks and trashy tv. For more about her internal judgments of herself and hilarious quips about motherhood, follow her on IG and Twitter @thescoopmama, fb.com/thescoopmama, as well as her website theSCOOPmama.

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