What to do when your child discovers “private parts”

written by Love Isn’t Enough columnist Bianca Laureano

A reader recently sent in a query seeking advice on how to work with her young son’s sudden infatuation with saying “I have a penis! Daddy has a penis! Mommy has a penis!” She is also unsure how to correct that last bit, because while she is comfortable talking about male genitalia, she is not comfortable saying “vagina.”

I love stories like these about children learning about their own bodies and the excitement they have as they make these discoveries. If only we could find ways to have that same excitement about obtaining knowledge in various forms remain throughout our lives! My first thought is that this is a situation that many parents find themselves in at some point in time with their children. It is normal for young people to have this infatuation and joy about their body parts.

I think one of the most important, and most difficult, components is finding a medium between beginning a conversation about “private parts” and affirming and sustaining that joy for our bodies as long as possible. One of the first suggestions I would make is to affirm your son’s excitement and greet his exclamation with a happy expression and say “that’s right!” or something similar. I have mentioned before about how youth and children pick up on our tone and diction of words and phrases, so be mindful.

You may also follow up the “That’s right!” comment with “do you know the parts of your face?” or “What do you have on top of your head” or something similar that not only allows the discussion to continue but also help move away from the genitals as a main focus when in public without there being harsh or negative reaction.

With regards to correcting him about the “Mommy has a penis!” statement I’d suggest stating in a neutral tone: “Mommy doesn’t have a penis.” There does not need to be an entire discussion about the vulva, but there may be a follow up question from your son such as “Why not?” or “What does Mommy have?” or your son may simply say “OK.” It’s difficult to say what may happen. Your son may want to approach you and touch your pelvis and see if what you are saying is true. This varies and it really depends on the child and their personality. I’d suggest having a response to those three possibilities just in case.

You may say “we can talk about that when we get home.” Another approach that may be useful to help curb your son’s exclamations is to use code words or pet names. I shared a bit about how much I like the idea of code words for youth and children because it gives a level of trust and language that is approved and supported by the family.  Here I shared:

“I like this because if your child doesn’t feel safe or needs to get your attention right away there are words/phrases/sounds/ etc. that they know they can use (my aunt has a whistle to get her boys attention and two decades later it STILL works!). I think it also can give children confidence to ask for what they need. For example if you are at a party at a friends house and your child needs to use the restroom and doesn’t know where it is, the child can find you and say “Mommy/Daddy my [insert pet name here] needs help” and you know what he means.”

For example, when your son says, “I have a penis! Daddy has a penis! Mommy has a penis!” you could say “That’s correct, and what did we say we would call it in public?” or “Yes, what else do we have?” You’ll what to remind your son that these are terms and conversations your family has chosen to have at certain times and places. It’s a process and some may say that this is a stage your son is in and that it will dissolve shortly.

If your child is in daycare or at school I would also suggest that you have these conversations with their caretaker(s) or teachers. Sometimes teachers and caretakers make assumptions about children who use proper terminology and see the use of the words as red flags for abuse/neglect/etc. It is good that they are on alert, but it’s difficult to explain things after the fact. I know that this seems odd and I understand the perspective of “I don’t have to tell them what I teach my child.” At the same time, there are just too many times I know and have heard of where things have blown up because of lack of communication and expectations of what was considered “good” or “moral” parenting. Simply saying to a caretaker or teacher “We use code names in our home for our genitals” or “We use the proper terminology for genitals in our home” is all they may need to hear to know what your values in your own home include.

I’d love to hear what other parents have done in similar situations. What has worked for you and your family? Have you chosen to use pet names? If so, when did you introduce them and what conversation did you have with your child?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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