Words used by children and their primary caregivers for private body parts and functions

Scolnik, Dennis; Atkinson, Victoria; Hadi, Maha; Caulfeild, Jon; Young, Nancy L.
December 2003
CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal;12/9/2003, Vol. 169 Issue 12, p1275
Academic Journal
Background: Effective patient-physician communication requires the use of words that are clearly understood by both parties. We conducted this study to compile a list of words used by children and caregivers to describe "private" anatomical structures and physiological functions, to document the frequency of such usage and to examine the relation between correct word usage and caregiver's level of education. Methods: In a large urban pediatric emergency department, a convenience sample of 156 children at least 3 years old were asked to name the body parts (penis, testes, vagina, buttocks, breasts) pointed to in 4 simple, explicit line drawings of an unclothed boy or girl, and to name the bodily functions (vomiting, defecation, urination) depicted in 3 drawings of children. Eighty-seven patients sufficiently fluent in English were included in the study. Their caregivers were asked separately what words they currently use with their child and with other adults for these body parts and functions and what words they remembered using as children. Results: The children used a mean of 1.2 correct anatomical and physiological terms out of a possible 8 to describe the private parts and functions in the drawings. The mean number of correct words used by the caregivers was 2.3 when talking with their children, 3.6 when talking with their peers and 1.5 when they were children. There was no correlation between the caregiver's level of education and the frequency of correct word usage by their children. We identified slang words used by at least 5% of the respondents; however, some used the same slang words to refer to different body parts. Interpretation: Given the variety of slang words used by children and their caregivers to describe private parts and functions, the meaning of the words should be clarified during history taking.


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