Some years ago, my then Year 1 daughter came home with a beautifully labeled diagram of “My body”.
I did a double take at one of the labels pointing to the midsection and gently said “But sweetheart.. Um…you don’t actually have a penis, you have a vulva!” She looked at me in disgust and said “Pelvis, Mummy. It says pelvis!”
I asked her if she had covered penis or vulva at school and she couldn’t remember. For me, something has gone a bit awry there.
How can we possibly think it is okay to teach five or six 6 year-olds complicated words like pelvis, femur, and tibia and not teach them the absolute basics of their external body parts?
Partly it is rooted in sexism. Let’s consider the words that children use for their genitals.
How many are there for boys - and how many for girls? For boys, we are comfortable with willy or penis, but girls have a confusing and euphemistic plethora of incorrect terms, like minnie, twinkle, noo noo, and front bottom.
This squeamishness around body parts - and particularly the word vulva – means parents and teachers avoid giving children the vital names and necessary understanding about their own bodies.
This sets children (particularly girls) up for a sense of shame.
Don’t be squeamish
Even the government is not immune from this reluctance explicitly to name body parts.
The statutory RSE guidance (2019) states “At key stages 1 and 2, the National Curriculum for science (2015) includes teaching about the main external parts of the body” so you might think this means vulva and penis as a minimum.
However, when you cross reference with the actual text within the science National Curriculum, the statutory guidance states “identify, name, draw and label the basic parts of the human body” with the non-statutory detail unhelpfully listing “including head, neck, arms, elbows, legs, knees, face, ears, eyes, hair, mouth, teeth”.
If I had written the guidance, it would explicitly state we need to teach penis and vulva as a minimum in KS1.
And by early KS2 (by the end of Y4), this would go to cover penis, testicles, vulva and uterus; building up to penis, testicles, scrotum, sperm duct; and vulva, labia, clitoris, vagina, uterus, ovaries, egg duct by end of Y6.
The strongest argument for using the correct words is safeguarding.
I know of a child abuse case where the abuser called his penis a “lollipop” and since no one would think twice about a child talking about lollipops, the abuse took much longer to be uncovered.
Jock Mickshik, specialist social worker in child sexual abuse, with over 25 years’ experience of assessing and treating sex offenders, told me that: “Predators tend to avoid children who have an accurate, working language for their body parts and are confident and articulate in telling adults if something untoward is happening to them.
“Conversely, offenders are more likely to exploit those children with little or no awareness of their bodies, who are less able to disclose what is happening to them.”
In trying to keep children innocent and safe, we may actually be doing the exact opposite.
Learning about anatomy
We also have to think about this in terms of laying the foundations of anatomy, with a view to scaffolding how children learn through their school years and into adult life.
We have girls starting their periods in Y4/5 of primary, without being taught about menstruation.
As a secondary science teacher, I could always tell which primary schools covered basic anatomy and reproduction well, and those that didn’t.
Many Year 7 children still thought that babies either came out of a woman’s anus or urethra - although “bum” or “where you wee from” was the language they tended to use.
Many women still refer to “down there” when discussing medical problems with a healthcare professional. Talking about body parts without shame or embarrassment from a young age means that children grow up comfortable with their own bodies, and are more able to seek help when they need it.
Use the right words
Schools should review when and how they teach the correct names of the body parts.
Let’s ensure children understand that their bodies are brilliant and awesome and that there is always a trusted adult who can help them if they are worried or scared.
Getting terminology right
- Conversations about agreed school terminology and rationale for its use should include your whole staff, including teaching assistants and lunchtime supervisors. Practise saying penis and vulva confidently in a safe space before you say it in the classroom!
- Contextualise where you might need to use the words. For example, when discussing toileting with children in Early Years or KS1, decide if you are going to mirror the child’s language or introduce the correct words.
- Agree as a staff that you will not introduce your own inaccurate terms to the children, or sanction the children for using the correct words in the correct context.
- Get your parents on board - explain the rationale to them, support them to use the words with a range of books (some are better than others and none of them are perfect) such as Nude Isn’t Rude and My Underpants Rule. Jayneen Sanders’ books on body safety education, including No Means No and My body! What I Say Goes are also helpful. Have copies available at school for parents to review and decide which ones might work best for their child at home.
- The videos from the Amaze.org support how to answer “Where do babies come from?” and “How are babies made?” The short clips show parents and educator the importance of using the correct words and answering questions in an age-appropriate way.
- The Pantosaurus materials (and the earworm of a song) are a safe starting point for children and their parents to start talking about how we name what is under our pants.
- Use these simple labelling diagrams from Education Scotland’s Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood website (tinyurl.com/htmybody). You can colour code the drawings in terms of private parts of the body, and talk about where it is okay and not okay for people to look at and touch.
- Some schools, depending on their context, choose to use the language of ‘most’ not ‘all’ (e.g. most girls have a vulva) when talking about sex differences, to make discussions more inclusive for children who might be gender diverse.
- If you need build your confidence using the word ‘vulva’ then Brook publishes a leaflet called “What is a Vulva anyway?”
- Separate teaching about the clitoris from teaching about FGM, which is often covered in Y6 in at-risk populations. The first time a girl learns about a clitoris should not be in the context of it being cut or removed.
Alice Hoyle is a Relationships and Sex Education Advisory Teacher and Youth Worker, and co-author of Great Relationships and Sex Education: 200+ Activities for Educators Working with Young People. She is available for training and support for Primary schools and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.