I finally did it: I told my daughter she had a vagina. She was five at the time and it was a big moment for me as a parent.
Truth be told, I had already been telling her she had a vagina since she was three. The only slight caveat is that I was telling her in Danish. My husband is Danish and it was a lot easier for me to say it in another language.
There’s a distinctive disassociation factor to saying tissekone (pee wife) or tissemand (pee husband) for penis. These are the actual names for penis and vagina in Danish because they don’t use cute pseudonyms or call them “private parts.” This seems strange and unnecessary for a Dane because it can indicate shame.
Denmark has been voted as the one of the happiest countries in the world for over 40 years in a row, and one of the key factors to their continued happiness is in the way they parent. One thing they do very differently in their parenting style is talk openly and naturally about sex to kids.
“Sex isn’t thought of as ‘the conversation’ but ‘a conversation’ that spans a lifetime starting from very young,” says Iben Sandahl, Danish psychotherapist. “Anatomy is called by its correct name and all questions get answered as honestly as possible. We just talk about it very naturally.”
Oh, and there are also children’s books to help out if you’re struggling. Some of them could drop the mouth of an American from 40 feet away, but they are actually really helpful.
My husband has been reading to our daughter about how babies are made since age four. And as much as it used to make my head spin, my daughter is enthralled and wants to read that book a lot. (Especially the page where Mads puts his tissemand into Emilia’s tissekone, and smiling sperm swim around the page. Oh my!)
However, if this kind of conversation or young reading material sounds unnerving to you, keep in mind that studies show that talking openly about sex helps teens become more responsible. A large study conducted by JAMA Pediatrics found that open sexual communication with parentshas a clear protective role in safer sex for teens.
Moreover, Planned Parenthood actually recommends talking about sex in early childhood, and many childhood educators are now encouraging parents to teach their kids accurate information about their bodies. This includes correct words to identify their genitalia. It’s an important method for teaching consent and preventing sexual crimes.
Kate Rohdenburg, a sexual violence prevention educator in New England, says that teaching children anatomically correct terms “promotes positive body image, self confidence, and parent-child communication; it discourages perpetrators, and, in the event of sexual abuse, helps children and adults feel more comfortable talking about it.”
So knowing all of this, I vowed to be as honest about sex from early on to diffuse any bombs. However, for all my good intentions, when my daughter finally asked me from the back seat of the car, she said, “Mommy, what is tissekone in English?”
I won’t deny it — I tensed up a little bit.
“Um, vagina,” I said somewhat quietly, feeling awkward.
“Va- what?” she yelled.
Why was I being so silly? I thought. I cleared my throat and sat up straighter.
“Vagina,” I exclaimed loudly and proudly. “You have a vagina!”
“Oh! Vagina! I didn’t know the word!”
My husband patted me on the leg. He was very proud.
My daughter is seven now, and since that day we have had so many interesting conversations about periods and babies, and I’ve been surprisingly natural about it all, finding ways to describe it for her age that’s honest. The more we talk and build on the last conversation, the less taboo the whole thing becomes for me.
After all, it’s us adults who bring the shame to the table about sexuality, not kids. And knowing that the more we treat it as just a part of life, that’s exactly what it becomes. No more and no less.
So when in doubt about genitalia vocabulary, try the Danish Way and call a spade a spade, or a vagina a vagina. It could be the best protection for your kids in the later years.