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Call It A Vulva: Why We Should Teach Kids Anatomical Terms For Genitals

Sex-abuse prevention educators say teaching kids accurate terms for their private parts is an important part of protecting them from abuse.

Would you be startled if your daughter came home from school talking about her vulva? Sex educators — including sex-abuse prevention educators — hope that she will. In fact, many experts argue that there are plenty of good reasons to teach young children accurate terminology for their genitals rather than euphemisms or colloquialisms.

As Laura Palumbo, a prevention specialist with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, points out, “teaching children anatomically correct terms, age-appropriately, promotes positive body image, self confidence, and parent-child communication; discourages perpetrators; and, in the event of abuse, helps children and adults navigate the disclosure and forensic interview process." However, people who use these terms often get pushback: everything from parents filing complaints against teachers to politicians getting banned from their state house floor. In The Atlantic, writer Catherine Buni talked to front-line educators as well as psychology researchers to hear why anatomical terminology is important for kids to learn from a young age.

Dr. Anthony Rizzuto, the child psychologist who oversaw the implementation of prevention education in Catholic schools and parishes in Boston, says that he saw the difference in kids' comfort levels after students started learning anatomically correct terms. This was especially true when it came to "children who were self-disclosing" — in other words, kids who reached out to say that they needed help. "The children came to learn that school and church was a safe environment to disclose and that if they chose to do that, people around them would know what to do to make it stop," he says. "Children got comfortable, and started coming to teachers and parents."

As Buni says, “Educators... want children to understand that their "private parts" are just that  — private and off limits to others. But they also want students to be comfortable talking about these body parts, and with the words that describe them.... When officials pull a teacher into an investigation or escort a legislator from her state house floor for using the word "vagina," or a parent removes a child from a class that uses the word "penis," children are more likely to think their questions will get them in trouble, she says. This shuts down communication, reinforcing the culture of secrets and silence perpetrators rely on for cover.”

"We don't want kids to think they're going to get in trouble by asking questions about sexual matters and health," explains Palumbo. This helps kids who "have important health questions or an experience they're concerned about talk with adults about their concerns." Our communities, including parents, educators, and the general public, have to work together to create an environment that is open to discussing these issues, and that includes ensuring that we become comfortable with terms like penis, vulva, anus, and more. "We need all adults to be partners in teaching healthy childhood sexual development," Palumbo concludes, and "square one is body parts.”

To learn more, visit The Atlantic, and browse our resource recommendations below. 

Books To Teach Kids About Their Bodies and Body Privacy

Who Has What?: All About Girls' Bodies and Boys' Bodies

Who Has What?: All About Girls' Bodies and Boys' Bodies

Written by: Robie H. Harris
Illustrated by: Nadine Bernard Westcott
Recommended Age: 3 - 7

While Nellie and Gus enjoy a trip to the beach, they have some questions about why their bodies look the way they do — and what other peoples' bodies look like. This book focuses on explaining reproductive anatomy, alongside other body parts, and explaining that these differences are not only normal, but just a part of a much more important whole: the person! With illustrations that capture a diverse community and simple, clear language that's accessible to young preschoolers, this book is a great introduction to talking about bodies.

My Body! What I Say Goes!

My Body! What I Say Goes!

Written by: Jayneen Sanders
Illustrated by: Anna Hancock
Recommended Age: 3 - 7

Kids can find confidence and courage in knowing they control their own body! This book teaches body safety skills, from understanding and knowing how to act on feeling uncomfortable with someone's behavior, to respecting body boundaries, to knowing your body — including private parts — by proper anatomical names, to building a support network you can count on when you need to talk. Throughout, kids are taught essential body safety skills that will help keep them safe as children, and help them grow up to be assertive and confident teenagers and adults. For another excellent title by the same author, check out No Means No: Teaching Children About Personal Boundaries, Respect, and Consent.

Amazing You!: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts

Amazing You!: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts

Written by: Gail Saltz
Illustrated by: Lynne Avril Cravath
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

For parents that want to talk about the differences between boys and girls, how babies are made and born, and the basics of privacy, but avoid an in depth discussion of intercourse, this book is the perfect option. The cartoony illustrations show girls and boys at different stages of development from baby to young adult, as well as diagrams of internal organs. While the book still discusses conception in terms of sperm joining egg, it leaves it up to parents to decide how and whether to explain the mechanics, making it perfect for younger preschoolers or for parents who want to save a discussion of sex for when their children are older.

It's NOT the Stork!

A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends

It's NOT the Stork!

A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families and Friends

Written by: Robie H. Harris
Illustrated by: Michael Emberley
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

One of the most popular and detailed books about bodies, pregnancy, and families for preschoolers, It's NOT The Stork follows a curious bird and bee friend as they learn about babies, bodies, and love from a diverse group of people of all ages, races, and body shapes. This book covers a wide range of topics, including growth in the womb, different kinds of families, and okay and not okay touches; the section-based format makes it perfect shorter, more detailed discussions about individual topics. The authors have also written two guides for older children which cover the same topics in more depth: It’s So Amazing! for ages 6 to 9 and It’s Perfectly Normal! for ages 10 and up.

It's So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families

It's So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families

Written by: Robie H. Harris
Illustrated by: Michael Emberley
Recommended Age: 7 - 10

Following up on It's NOT The Stork, this book expands on topics about bodies, sexuality, and more for older kids. It includes a section of safety that talks further about "okay" and "not okay" touches, and introduces the term "sexual abuse," emphasizing that abuse is never the fault of the child and that you should talk to trusted adults until you find someone who will help to keep you safe. It also reminds kids that most people have a long list of "okay touches," including cuddles, hugs, and kisses — and models that people have different "okay touches," when Bee declares that "I do NOT like too-tight hugs."

Below Your Belt: How To Be Queen of Your Pelvic Region

Below Your Belt: How To Be Queen of Your Pelvic Region

Illustrated by: Jan Dolby
Recommended Age: 9 - 14

While we don't talk about it much, the whole pelvic region has a remarkable effect on health and well-being. In this new book from the Women's Health Foundation, girls will learn the whole picture of pelvic health, from good urinary and bowel habits to strengthening pelvic muscles to tracking and managing periods. Throughout, the book incorporates proper terminology, encouraging girls to recognize that pelvic and reproductive health are just as important as the health of the rest of their bodies. For younger children, the Women's Health Foundation has also published a picture book, Riding The Potty Train for ages 3 to 7.

It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health

It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health

Written by: Robie H. Harris
Illustrated by: Michael Emberley
Recommended Age: 10 and up

In this book, Robie Harris, the author of It's Not the Stork and It's So Amazing, provides a guide for older tweens and teens that incorporates details about puberty, growing sexual attraction, and the wider world they'll encounter as young adults. In addition to a further expanded section about sexual abuse and consent, Harris also addresses inappropriate online interactions, since kids this age will have increasing online freedom, and talks about the importance of not engaging in sexual activity until you are ready to make healthy, responsible decisions about sex.

Taking Care Of Your "Girls": A Breast Health Guide for Girls, Teens, and In-Betweens

Taking Care Of Your "Girls": A Breast Health Guide for Girls, Teens, and In-Betweens

Recommended Age: 10 and up

Girls are as anxious and confused about their breasts as ever. That's why Marisa Weiss, M.D., an oncologist and breast health specialist, and her teenage daughter, Isabel, decided to create this book. Based on their research, you'll get answers to questions about when to get a first bra — and what kind to choose; why breasts grow the way they do; and how to take care of your breasts into adulthood. A groundbreaking book for both mothers and daughters, Taking Care of Your "Girls" is a practical guide to breast care and a girl-to-girl conversation about the feelings and emotions that come with the territory.

Body Safety Education

A Parents' Guide to Protecting Kids from Sexual Abuse

Body Safety Education

A Parents' Guide to Protecting Kids from Sexual Abuse

Written by: Jayneen Sanders

This book is a step-by-step guide to help parents and educators keep kids safe from sexual abuse! With Body Safety Education, adults who live or work with children will learn how to teach them about important concepts like bodily autonomy, privacy, and inappropriate touch. At the same time, kids are empowered by learning that "I am the boss of me," setting them up for ongoing assertiveness and confidence! With age appropriate language and simple, easily conveyed lessons, this book helps give children a thorough grounding in keep their bodies safe.

The New Puberty: How To Navigate Early Development in Today's Girls

The New Puberty: How To Navigate Early Development in Today's Girls

Recommended Age: Adults

Studies show that early puberty is becoming more common, with almost 10% of girls showing signs of early puberty before age 8. But "early bloomers" can face some big challenges: with the body of a 13-year-old but the brain of an 8-year-old, it can be hard to understand how peoples' responses and attitudes towards you are changing. Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff are experts in early puberty in girls, and in this book, they provide a detailed framework for guiding girls through early puberty, including what to do if and when she receives unwanted sexual attention. The result is a reassuring and empowering guide that will help parents feel confident in guiding their daughters through this transition.

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