How to Talk to Kids About Private Parts

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When Arnold Schwarzenegger tried on a new uniform as a kindergarten teacher in the classic 1990s movie “Kindergarten Cop,” one little boy announced, “Boys have a penis, girls have a vagina.” The classroom of pint-sized students erupted in laughter, and a straight-faced Arnold quipped, “Thanks for the tip.”

Schwarzenegger’s character handled the situation like a pro because he didn’t find it a laughing matter, but recognized the child for his knowledge and he kept the conversation brief.

Body parts can be the butt of jokes (pun intended), can instigate reproduction talks and are instrumental in potty training. Most parents have multiple discussions with their children about genitalia — and there’s no exact science to it. How and when to talk about private parts is a private matter, and one that requires prior thought and decision making between parents.

As an experienced pediatrician and mother of three, I suggest three key conversations:

1. Potty talk. Between 18 months and 2 years old, children commence potty training and become more aware of bodily functions. This is when most families initiate their first private parts talk. I’ve heard all sorts of names for private parts, ranging from pet names, “front and back” and “pee pees,” to the anatomically correct penis and vagina. Research hasn’t solidly proven one name superior, so families should choose body part names based on what they feel comfortable with.

By 2 years old, children understand their parts help them go to the bathroom. They should also learn to keep their bodies clean, to wipe properly and to not show their personal areas in public.

By 3 or 4 years old, when children are fully potty trained, parents should teach children not to use potty talk during playtime, school or other public situations. Instruct children to ask their parents questions — because questions will likely arise as potty talk and gender differences become hot topics on the playground.

2. Private parts. It’s important to teach children to keep private parts private at a young age. I make it a routine discussion during well-check visits for 3- and 4-year-olds. As I examine their private region I explain, “This is your personal area. No one should ask to look at it or touch it except your parents or your doctor. It’s not OK for a neighbor or someone at school to look or touch your personal area.” Parents’ talks should sound similarly brief and frank. Also, parents can help keep private parts private by establishing privacy at home. Once children become aware of differences in gender, it’s time for parents of the opposite gender to close bathroom doors during elimination, showers and getting dressed.

3. Birds and bees. Children 5 years old and younger aren’t ready for “the talk” about intimacy, but they may have questions like “How do babies get into a mommy’s tummy?” Keep answers brief and filtered so children receive only the nuggets of information they’re looking for. Let them ask for more details at their own pace.

For each genitalia discussion, stay calm, honest and open. Remember, these chats are likely the first of many crucial conversations to come.

Erin Washburn is a pediatrician at Randolph Pediatric Associates.