Excerpted from Talking to Your Kids About Sex
If you provide age-appropriate information and stay attuned to your child's natural curiosity and she will cultivate a healthy respect for her body.
Using accurate language
It is important to use the proper terms for all of your child’s body parts from infancy. This includes using accurate terms for the genitals. The correct term for the female genitals is “vulva.” (Medically speaking, “vagina” is only used in reference to the actual vaginal canal, not the whole of the female genital anatomy.) The correct terms for the male genitalia are “penis” and “testes.”
As you teach your child these terms, also take into account the common words that children his age use. For example, as you explain the vulva, mention that some people call this the vagina, and that although that word refers more specifically to the vaginal cavity, when other children say this they will generally mean the female genitals. Explain that this is a common misunderstanding and that while he can use either phrase and does not need to correct his friends, “vulva” is the correct term.
If you don’t generally use the proper terms in reference to your own body, it will likely take some time to feel comfortable using them with your child. However, it is important that you take this step. Using cute nicknames for our genitals or those of our children sends the message that the genitals are embarrassing or silly or uncomfortable. Just like your child has an elbow, a shoulder, and a nose, he or she also has a penis or a vulva. If you use these terms from day one, your child will be less likely to feel embarrassment or awkwardness when talking about the genitals.
Using accurate language from the start also means that your child will feel confident enough later in life to openly discuss health concerns with a doctor. In addition, using correct terminology can help better protect your child from inappropriate sexual contact, as he will understand his own genitals and will be less likely to feel any shame or confusion when talking to you about his body.
Discussing bodily functions
Even for adults, bodily functions often cause cringes or giggles—and understandably so. The body can act in ways that are strange, embarrassing, and unpredictable. However, it is important that you move beyond these reflex reactions and take the time to demystify and normalize the body’s functions for your child.
If you don’t do this, your child might end up feeling embarrassed or ashamed of her body, or unable to open up to you about any concerns, particularly concerns about genital pain. For example, many little girls are prone to urinary tract infections, which are sometimes triggered by bubble baths. If your daughter doesn’t feel comfortable coming to you and explaining that it hurts when she uses the bathroom, her health could be at risk. This is why it is important that your child understands and feels comfortable with all of her bodily functions—so that when something does go wrong, she can feel safe expressing this to you.
You can help your child achieve this feeling of comfort and safety by not overreacting to bodily functions. Many parents tend to feel uncomfortable or even revolted while changing diapers or helping their child in the bathroom, and they let these feelings show. Negative comments or expressions send a clear message to your child—her bodily functions are gross! Make an effort to avoid negative messages by saying “What a healthy bowel movement!” when changing your child or helping to wipe them. This will teach your child that bodily functions are natural and healthy—a lesson that will also help her feel confident about the rest of her body.
Keeping information age-appropriate
As your child grows, he will naturally have questions about the body that move beyond simply naming physical parts. He might begin to ask “Why do I have bumps on my tongue?”, or questions more difficult to answer, such as “Why does my penis sometimes become hard?”
If you pause and think of how to answer these questions in an age-appropriate way, they will lose much of their intimidation factor. Giving age-appropriate information simply means talking about the body in a way that fits the age and maturity level of your child. The best way to determine what information your child is ready to know is to think about the type of questions he is asking. If the question is purely physical like the ones above, you can give a purely physical answer, such as: “Your penis becomes hard when there is a change in blood flow. This is natural, and can happen for no particular reason.” If he is still curious, or asks questions that move beyond anatomical facts, you can continue to provide small pieces of information that answer the specific question and nothing more.
Excerpted from Talking to Your Kids About Sex: turning "the talk" into a conversation for life (© Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2009), copyright, Laura Berman, Ph.D., all rights reserved.
Previous« Now in first page