a father and daughter discuss something on a playground

Family Health

Vagina? Vulva? A Dad’s Struggle With Teaching His Daughter About Her Body

Jul 26, 2019

Call me defeated.

I had the best intentions. I taught my kids the genuine anatomical names for their body parts, even the ones I wasn’t all that clear on myself. I did it by the book. There were no storks, bees or precious flowers. I blushed plenty while I banished euphemism, but my sex chat seemed to capture their interest. Harry Potter’s wizarding adventures at Hogwart’s just could not compete. My kids really, really wanted to know this stuff. There was a surge of pride. It was one of those rare parent wins. It went so well — until it didn’t.

Relevant Reading: How a Sex Joke I Heard on My 10-Year-Old's Field Trip Led Us to Talk About Porn

How Did I Get Here?

My daughter had just started kindergarten, while my sons were in SK and Grade 2. I would like to say that I consulted all the leading experts and studied up on when to start and what to say. The truth is, it was much more muddled. They had questions. I was terrified. I nabbed the best book I could find at the public library for backup and dove in. The only hiccup was the vulva.

What the Hell is a Vulva?

If you are a dude, you might be wondering just what a vulva is. And how, say, it's different from a vagina and a woman's many other physiological networks. 

First off, it is not the same thing as a vagina. Trust me.

The vulva is all of the outside parts of a woman’s nether regions. It includes the distinctive mound down there, the opening which girls and women pee through (the urethra) and the outside parts of the vagina. If your daughter starts talking about her “private parts” — in the down below place — this is probably the best name for what she is talking about. My two sons were fascinated with this distinction. My daughter, not so much. She liked the v-word she was more familiar with a heck of a lot more. And, as my wife will attest, I have never had a point which was not worth arguing.

Why Does Using the Word Vulva Matter to Me? 

I would love to say that ardent feminism compelled me to teach my kids this word and encourage them to use it, but that just isn’t true. I taught them this word because I was pretty embarrassed the first time a woman pointed out to me that I was using the word “vagina” but talking about a slightly different part of her anatomy. Then there was teaching my precious little girl to define her private parts almost exclusively in terms of their sexual function. A little weird.  That’s right, I dug in my heels because I got embarrassed and squeamish. 

Relevant Reading: It's Not a Sex-Ed Curriculum, It's a Health Curriculum, and Our Kids Need It

I Blame the Children

What I quickly learned is that a vulva is a vulva unless everyone in junior kindergarten calls it a vagina. It was a humbling experience. I blame the power of the peer group. To amend a famous Jean-Paul Sartre quote ever-so-slightly, "hell is other people’s children."

It all came to a head one night as we brushed her teeth. The topic of her vagina came up again. I listened, then corrected her. She brushed some, spit some and then shot me a withering look. “It’s my body,” she declared. What do you say to that? We’re calling it a vagina… for now. 

Article Author Rob Thomas
Rob Thomas

Read more from Rob here.

Rob Thomas is a writer, editor and a work-at-home dad. Brood, a book of poems inspired by his experiences of fatherhood, was launched at the Ottawa International Writers Festival in 2014. His journalism has appeared in places such as Ottawa Magazine, the United Church Observer, Canadian Running and on CBC radio and television. He is also a founding member of an Ottawa social club for dads called The Ugly Mothers.

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