The Bod Squad
To complicate matters further, preschool children are at a developmental stage where they're naturally curious about gender differences and how their bodies work. They're trying to figure out why boys have a penis and girls have a vagina, and for these words, too, conversation becomes a testing ground. A 3- or 4-year-old quickly realizes that using the names of body parts gets an immediate reaction from adults -- be it laughter, embarrassment, or even anger.
"Grandma, do you have a penis?" your daughter asks at a family gathering -- and watch what happens! Grandpa becomes pale, Dad is speechless, Grandma is appalled, and you're ready to dive under the nearest table. Reprimands may follow. "There's a lot of shock when a child says penis or vagina," says child and family therapist Meri Wallace, M.S.W., the Brooklyn-based author of Keys to Parenting Your Four-Year-Old and Birth Order Blues. "It adds an extra thrill when kids see adults get nervous over these words."
But while adults' tolerance for potty talk is limited, at best, preschoolers soon discover that their friends freely and tirelessly engage in jokes, poems, and teasing, all in the name of bathroom humor. Parents beware: "If you're not comfortable talking about this stuff with your kids," warns Dr. Jay, "your children are going to talk about it a lot with peers."
And so the silliness escalates -- especially in group settings. "At age 4, kids giggle together and feel cool if they use these kinds of words," says Wallace. "Everyone laughs, it's fun -- it's a way of being part of the group."