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Teaching children about their private parts

It can feel tricky and embarrassing for some parents and other adults to use the correct terminology for private parts, however messages from research as well as consistent reports from those that work in child psychology and child protection have established that doing so reaps many positive benefits. This blog offers some guidance and explanation around this in the best interests of our children developing lifelong positive habits.

Penis, vulva, vagina, bottom. For many adults, using these words can be uncomfortable.

When we don’t feel comfortable saying something we tend to avoid it or make up colloquial terms or pet names in order to avoid any embarrassment. There are many such names - some bizarre and often non-recognisable as a description of private parts.

When it comes to our children, there are many reasons why naming parts of the body correctly is important. This blog makes the case for teaching our children, young and old the anatomically correct names for their private parts. I would always encourage discussing this with parents as well, not only to check that they are happy with the approach in your setting but to encourage these simple changes are implemented at home as well.

Teaching children the anatomically correct names for private parts increases a child’s self-confidence and positive body image. When adults are clear, unashamed and upfront about all parts of the body, this teaches the child that all parts of their body are important and no shame and stigma are attached to any part. Shame, stigma and embarrassment are taught, but can be untaught with the right approach. If we think about it, it’s actually quite bizarre to teach a child that their knee is called their knee, and that their ear is called their ear, but then call their vulva a ‘woowoo’ or one of the many names out there. Facilitate conversations with children using age-appropriate resources and books, for example anatomically correct dolls in your setting or books such as 'The Great Big Body Book' for the children to look at.

It’s important to educate children that they own their body. They are in charge of it and their private parts belong to them. Body ownership ties in with children's rights, and children have a right to express how they feel and to have control over who touches them. One good opportunity to have these conversations is during potty training as children start to learn about using the toilet and no longer wearing a nappy or having people change them. Consider how the displays you have in the toilet areas/bathroom might also support this learning.

When children have a clear understanding of their body, especially their private parts, we are helping equip them to be more likely to be able to ward off potential grooming from sexual abusers. This is not just around being touched inappropriately themselves, but also being asked to touch an adult or another child inappropriately. The understanding in turn increases a child’s sense of ownership over their body. If, in a worst case scenario, a child was a victim of sexual abuse, the disclosure and any consequential criminal investigation of that abuse may be more successful if the victim is able to name their body parts and understand that their body belongs to them. Educating yourself on spotting any unusual behaviour from a child that could suggest abuse forms part of the safeguarding requirements as a practitioner. Take PACEY’s safeguarding course or read more about NSPCC’s Talk PANTS campaign for further support.

Teaching your child in this way can help increase the bond between parent and child, helping open communication become the norm. This is a very healthy and helpful dynamic to have as you grow up together. It’s also invaluable as your child approaches puberty.

On the subject of puberty, having spoken openly and accurately with a child while they’re young means you can also confidently support them through puberty. I think that it’s always best for youngsters to have the information about how human bodies develop in as they grow so they are prepared for and understand the changes ahead.

So, in short, knowledge empowers. It also supports and enables positive body image, increased self-esteem and confidence to understand and take ownership of the amazing and fascinating growing changing body that belongs to them. They can then take this invaluable knowledge with them into adulthood, respecting their own bodies and those of others. What an amazing gift for a young adult and society to have more young people body educated.

About the author

Maisie is a respected and nationally recognised early years expert. She founded her own model of holistic childcare and manages her successful and busy nursery in Hackney using this approach. She has worked with children and families in London and internationally for 24 years and has three related degrees, two of which are postgraduate, one being in child and family psychology from the world-renowned Tavistock and Portman clinic in West London. Maisie is also a qualified nanny, children's rights trainer, baby massage therapist and forest school leader. A single mum to her 8-year-old son, Maisie lives in Hackney and also speaks on other subjects such as successful co-parenting and understanding and accepting autism. Maisie creates and delivers monthly parenting workshops in Hackney as well as parenting consultancy and training for schools and nurseries.

Useful resources

The Great Big Body Book -
NSPCC Talk Pants campaign -
Purchase anatomically correct dolls in the PACEY shop -

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