originally published on October 25, 1999; updated April 20, 2021
Dear Sex Ed Mom,
I am the mom of a two-year-old darling boy. I was curious as to whether it is better to start teaching him now the proper term for his penis — or is it OK to use the more “cutesie” terms we often use with our children?
— to be “cutesie” or not
Dear to be “cutesie” or not,
This is the most common question I hear from new parents. It still amazes me how something as simple as using accurate terminology for body parts can be so challenging for some of us. But, alas, we do live in a culture where most of us didn’t hear accurate terminology from our own parents.
The answer to your question is YES! You should be teaching your son (this goes equally for daughters) all the names for all of his body parts, including his penis. And you should call it a penis. This is important for several reasons.
First of all, one of the most important qualities of a sexually healthy child is having high self-esteem. This means he will love and value who he is as a person. Self-esteem includes having a healthy body image. So, if you start to call his genitals by “cutesie” names only, he may eventually get the message that there is something wrong with his genitals — especially when he learns the accurate terminology from others.
Secondly, it is about health and safety. Knowing the names of all their parts provides them with a universal language so that if they ever have a health problem or are sexually abused they have the ability and comfort to use terminology that everyone clearly understands.
Finally, using such nicknames may send the message that you are unwilling to discuss certain subjects and hence are not an “askable” parent. As your child gets older he may think that you are not comfortable discussing sexuality issues and he may not ask you when he has questions.
So, use accurate terminology with your sons and daughters from the beginning. Teach them both the male and female genitalia. By the age of three, my son knew that most boys have a penis and testicles and girls have a vulva, clitoris and vagina. These different parts are what determines a person’s sex at birth. A few years later he understood that these are simply special parts that can provide pleasure and for most are used in the process of making babies.
An excellent book that tackles the body part issue for toddlers is “Bellybuttons Are Navels” (Prometheus Books,1992) by my colleague Mark Schoen, Ph.D. This is the first step on the fun, challenging and exciting journey toward raising a sexually healthy child. Good luck!