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Why you should teach your kids correct names for genitals

Ontario plans to teach correct terminology to Grade 1 students – a far cry from the euphemisms possibly used in classrooms of the late forties.

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Penis, testicles, vagina, vulva: Grade 1 students will learn the proper names for their genitals as of September under Ontario's new sexual health education curriculum.

Squeamish parents might prefer euphemisms, but the reasoning behind teaching the word "penis" instead of "dinky" is serious. Kids who know the correct terminology for genitalia are more equipped to disclose sexual abuse. Sexual health educators and child abuse experts laud the Grade 1 recommendation – and urge parents to start naming body parts properly in infancy when talking about toes, knees, elbows and ears.

"Using proper terminology is protective," says Audrey Rastin, a manager at Boost Child Abuse Prevention & Intervention in Toronto. "Kids who are comfortable talking about their bodies are more likely to be able to disclose when something worrisome or uncomfortable is happening to them."

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She says that when children use incorrect terminology, they may be misunderstood. Communicating with the right words helps adults understand what is happening.

"Parents who can openly discuss and name body parts, what they do and what is appropriate can help children understand when touch or actions fall outside the range of healthy relationships, and are worrisome or abusive," Rastin says. A 1995 study found that some sexual offenders avoid children who know the correct names for their genitals: It suggests these children have also been educated about sexuality and safety.

Being able to name "private parts" using dictionary terms means victimized children can get help sooner. "The earlier the disclosure, the higher the likelihood of good healing," says Lyba Spring, a sex educator in Toronto.

Spring recounts a heartbreaking story told at a workshop by a woman who had been sexually abused as a child. Back then, the only word she knew for vulva was "cookie." "When she tried to tell a teacher about how someone wanted her cookie, the teacher told her she had to share. It's obvious that the consequence of that was that the abuse continued. She didn't have the tools she needed to disclose."

Spring stresses that, while many parents of toddlers use "silly words" for genitals, they should be complementing them with actual terms. She suggests proper labelling when your child is learning language. A good opportunity is bath time, when it can become routine. "As you're giving your child the building blocks, they get it – that you're willing to talk about these things," she says. "You're modelling communicating about the body."

This way, kids sense they have permission to talk freely with their parents when they do have questions, Rastin says, adding that early, accurate naming also promotes the development of a healthy, positive body image. "We don't create pseudonyms for other body parts," she said. "No part of our body should be secret, shameful or embarrassing."

Why do so many parents hesitate to use actual terms for genitals, going with cutesy code words like "monkey" and "muffin" instead? It has to do with our cultural discomfort around talking about sex in general. In this case, it's important for parents to get over their own reticence, early.

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"I have encountered parents over the years who had a strong objection to naming parts. Some of them thought that it was 'too young,'" Spring says. "They're afraid that there's somehow a direct link between naming the body parts and having sex. And they think that they can somehow maintain a child's innocence by keeping them ignorant. There's a difference between innocence and ignorance. Ignorance is dangerous."

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