Mum's Penis Rant Has People Divided Over What Parents Call Kids' Genitals

Some parents say vagina and penis, others say foo-foo and willy. Which are you?
Mikolette via Getty Images

When it comes to talking about genitals, there’s certainly no universal approach that parents take.

Some swear by nicknames for their child’s private areas like fanny or foo-foo, willy or winky. Others will use the proper terminology, referring to their child’s vulva or vagina, or their penis.

The issue can be particularly divisive among different generations – as one parent recently pointed out on Reddit.

The mum of a nine-week-old recalled how when she changed her son’s nappy, her mother went over to watch.

The baby’s mum told her son “let’s point your penis down, so you don’t pee on yourself,” at which point she said her mum commented on how “weird” it was for her to call his penis by the anatomical name.

“Excuse me, mother, that’s what it is,” wrote the exasperated parent in a Reddit post. “I’m not going to teach my son pet names for his penis. I’m going to teach him the anatomically correct name for his genitalia.”

In the comments section, people were quick to suggest it’s not just a generational issue. One millennial said their sister, of a similar age, hated using anatomical terms “and refused to call it a penis when her son was born”.

Another said their sister-in-law, who is a nurse, taught her daughter to call her vulva a “hooha”.

“I almost fell to the floor the first time I heard her say it. Ridiculous,” wrote the Reddit user. “I’m pregnant with my first and we’ll be using anatomically correct names from the start, it’s just safer that way.”

According to the Eve Appeal, as many as two fifths of parents of girls prefer euphemisms including ‘bits’, ‘front bottom’, ‘flower’ or ‘fairy’.

What’s more, less than a fifth use the word ‘vagina’ and less than 1% use ‘vulva’ in front of their daughters. A third say this would only be appropriate once they turned 11.

Things are a little trickier with girls than boys, as anatomically vulva is the correct terminology for their outer genitals, whereas the vagina is the internal muscular canal connecting the uterus to the vulva.

But parents – like parenting coach Jo Mitchelhill – and indeed, lots of people, tend to just use “vagina” to refer to it all.

Mitchelhill says her daughter calls her genitals her vagina and her bottom. But when she was at nursery, her little one started calling her vulva her “noonie”.

“I was taken aback because we had always just said vagina,” recalls the mum.“I asked the nursery nurse about it and suggested that it was better to call it by it’s proper name. She admitted she was too embarrassed to use the proper term and that’s what she called it.”

The mum believes parents should try to encourage kids to use the correct terminology for their genitals. “The name is just a name that tells you what you are talking about,” she says.

“It can be embarrassing for people to address the correct names because we are often taught that it is a dirty thing to say. But it is only crude if we put that connotation onto it.”

Mitchelhill says using the correct terminology is also important if children need medical help, or there’s a safeguarding issue, so everyone is clear about the part of the body they’re referring to.

According to the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), teaching children the anatomically correct names for private parts increases a child’s self-confidence and positive body image.

“I 100% believe that you use the correct names from the off,” says Mitchelhill, “because it takes away any ambiguity from the conversation.”

In 2017, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC) advised parents not to call children’s body parts nicknames and to use official words instead, because otherwise it can be “really confusing for children”.

Jill Wilson, health improvement lead at the NHS trust’s sexual health service, Sandyford, said: “Many adults were not taught these words growing up and can feel uncomfortable using them as they can be thought of as ‘sexual’ words.

“Young children do not have these associations and usually consider these words to be as normal as ‘hand’ and ‘leg’.”

Dr Hana Patel, who works as a GP, says she thinks it is the parents’ right to choose what they name it. She has two children: her four-year-old calls her vagina her “nu-nu”, whereas her three-year-old son calls his penis his “willy”.

“I feel the important thing is that everyone knows what it is called at home, and that it is treated the same as any other ‘body part’,” she says, “ie. not to be embarrassed or afraid to talk about the vagina or penis, and encourage children to ask questions about their body parts so that no areas are taboo.”