Question: My 3-year-old calls his penis his "wee-wee," but my sister says he should learn the correct term for it. I think "penis" sounds too clinical, and I also don’t want him going around talking about that. Who’s right?
Dona Matthews Ph.D. has worked with children, families, and schools since 1990. In addition to running a private practice with a focus on giftedness and other special needs, she was Executive Director, Millennium Dialogue on Early Child Development, University of Toronto, and founding Director, Hunter College Center for Gifted Studies and Education, City University of New York. She has published dozens of articles and book chapters, and is co-author of four books
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Answer: Your sister’s right.
Children should be taught the standard terms for all of their body parts, including the ones adults are nervous about naming. He probably doesn’t call his hand his "bang-bang" or his foot his "walkie," and it’s time to teach him that his penis is his penis.
When kids know and are comfortable using the standard terms for their private body parts — penis, scrotum, clitoris, vagina — they’ve got one more protection against sexual abuse.
When children feel awkward talking about certain body parts — if they giggle when someone mentions those parts, for example — they’re more likely to feel embarrassed about asking questions, and they’re less likely to tell you if someone is touching them inappropriately. Euphemisms usually reflect parents’ discomfort with talking openly about those body parts, and so kids learn there’s something naughty, wrong, or rude about talking about them.
Recent research shows that knowing the correct anatomical terms enhances kids’ body image, self-confidence, and openness. It also discourages their susceptibility to molesters. When children are abused, having the correct language helps both the child and adults deal with disclosure and — if necessary — the forensic interview process.
According to Laura Palumbo of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, "We need all adults to be partners in teaching healthy childhood sexual development, and square one is body parts. Educators and parents should communicate accurately, without stigma or shame."
Kids need to know that their penis, scrotum, clitoris, vagina, and vulva are body parts like their arms, feet, ears, and elbows. They’re different because they’re private — we usually keep them covered — but they’re healthy, good, acceptable body parts nonetheless.
In my attempt to find evidence supporting these positions, I found several articles describing a need for more research on the sexual abuse of young children. In the absence of statistical validation, however, there is a general consensus among clinical experts that children who know the anatomically correct names for their genitals are better able to avoid abuse, or to talk about it if it happens. From the American Academy of Pediatrics: "In early childhood, parents can teach their children the name of the genitals, just as they teach their child names of other body parts. This teaches that the genitals, while private, are not so private that you can’t talk about them."