This kid asked his mom if she has a wiener. An expert shares how parents can talk to children about genitalia.

·5 min read
It's important to use anatomical terms when discussing the body with kids. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
It's important to use anatomical terms when discussing the body with kids. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

How do you talk to your kids about their most intimate body parts — and yours? Late last month one mom on TikTok shared her approach after being asked, "Do you have a wiener, Mama?" by her 2-year-old son. The video has since been viewed nearly 32 million times.

"I have a girl part; girls have different parts than boys," the user, AshleyMichelle199, tells the inquisitive toddler in the now-viral post. A day later, she returned to TikTok to respond to critics to clarify that her son does also know "the proper term" for his genitalia.

Using anatomical terms is important for various reasons, says Kelly Nadel, a parent coach and psychotherapist who also serves as director of clinical training for Dr. Becky's Good Inside.

"First, avoidance communicates discomfort," Nadel tells Yahoo Life. "By being direct and honest about your child’s private parts and their correct names, we let our kids know that it is safe and acceptable to talk about. Secondly, we want our kids to learn about important topics from us so we can ensure they have correct information. This means saying vagina, penis, vulva and testicles to ensure everyone is talking about the same parts."

Pushing through the discomfort

Nadel considers herself a "big advocate of directness," and recommends using books or anatomical dolls as teaching aids to help kids learn about the body and reduce any sense of shame around the subject. While she acknowledges that some parents may feel awkward about discussing these things with their kids, it's important to be open and "communicate acceptance and warmth around this conversation."

If a child asks something along the lines of "do you have a penis?" Nadel recommends giving a clear, precise answer, such as "I have a vagina. Daddy has a penis," or whatever fits your particular situation. A curious child may follow that up with a desire to see or even touch their parent's genitalia, which Nadel says presents an opportunity to set some "clear boundaries."

Again, maintaining a tone that is warm and non-judgmental is key. Nadel suggests a script in which the parent calmly explains what they have and communicates that this is their private area, akin to the private area the child has. The parent can also reinforce that the child's private area is only for them to touch.

In some cases, it's the child who may feel hesitant or resistant about discussing bodies or using anatomical terms. It's OK for them to adopt a term like "wiener" or "cookie" — so long as they do know and understand the correct name.

Says Nadel, "One thing we can do is say, 'It’s OK if you’re not so sure about using the word penis yet. I get that. I am going to keep using that word so that we can both feel more comfortable using the correct words for the correct body parts. I know you’ll know when you’re ready.' The last thing we want to do is shame our kids into feeling like they’re saying something 'wrong' in the context of their body. Showing our child that we are comfortable using the proper terms is the first step in allowing them to absorb that confidence."

But what if they blurt it out?

A concern some commenters voiced underneath the "do you have a wiener?" TikTok was having their toddler blurt out "vagina" or "penis" at the grocery store or during a playdate. If they do, don't panic.

"Before thinking about what to do, I would encourage a parent to take a deep breath and ask themselves, 'What am I worried about here?'" says Nadel. "This likely gives parents important information because it helps them differentiate what’s happening for your kid from what worrisome story you’re telling yourself.

"If your child seems extra-curious about these words, I’d first encourage parents to look at whether their own shut-down reaction ('stop saying that!') might actually be making these words more enticing to use," she notes. "That being said, I understand that there are times when we may need to provide some limits. If your child is using the word 'penis/vagina' as a joke or appears to want to elicit a reaction from others, then I would encourage parents to say directly to their child, 'You are really curious about the word penis. Let’s take a moment together to calm our bodies and get all our sillies out. We can even go into the bathroom and say 'penis penis penis, vagina vagina vagina,' and get out all your wiggles. After that we’ll try to go back to our playdate and have some fun.”

She adds that kids are often confused about when they're allowed to say certain things, and when they're not. As a parent, you can guide them through that confusion or any feelings of shame by letting them know they can come to you to help work through any questions or emotions.

Talking about touch

Kids are curious creatures, and in the process of exploring their bodies they may find themselves reaching for their genitals. If you notice your toddler is frequently touching or playing with his penis while out in public or around other people, strike up a conversation that, as ever, sets firm boundaries but steers clear of shaming.

"In the early years, a child touching oneself is sensual not sexual," says Nadel, who suggests acknowledging that touching those areas can feel good, but then emphasizing that these are special parts of the body that should only be touched in private. A sample script: "Isn’t it amazing that we have parts of our body that feel good to touch? You may be noticing that it feels good to touch your [genitals] — that makes sense. ... There are certain parts of our body that are special, and so we only touch them when we are alone. You can always go into your room for some alone time. I’ll keep giving you reminders when you need them because I know it can be confusing.”

"Remember that touching oneself is normal and healthy, and letting your child know this upfront reduces shame and embarrassment around those sensations," Nadel adds.

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