When my daughter Amy was 4, her favorite word in the world was tushy. She would say it to gauge my reaction, then she'd giggle. Amy made up her own jokes -- "Why did the chicken cross the road? Because he wanted to get to Tushy Street!" -- which she'd repeat, day after day, howling with laughter. I tried my best not to show any sort of reaction, but she'd insist, "Don't you think that's funny, Mommy?"
After she began to sing "Happy penis to you," I decided it was time for a serious chat. I told her, "A penis is just a body part. There's nothing funny about it."
The next day in a taxi, she leaned forward and told the driver, "A penis is just a body part. There's nothing funny about it." I didn't know whether to crawl under my seat or laugh.
What is it about bathroom talk that so fascinates and amuses kids? Starting around age 3 or 4, mentions of body parts, products, and functions increasingly fill their conversations. As children share animal crackers, they snicker and say, "Oh, the bear is pooping!" Little girls pull down their pants in a joyous burst of giggles: "See my butt!" Little boys run down the street chanting crude euphemisms. It's fun for them merely to say these words, but the real thrill comes, of course, from shocking any adult within earshot.
Even though children's bathroom talk is universal, we often feel anxious when we hear it and unsure of how to react. Should we laugh, ignore it, or try to set limits? We're confused, at least in part, because our culture has strong taboos when it comes to talking about topics like toileting and sex.
We may think that we're much more open-minded than our own parents were about delicate subjects, but many of us are still uncomfortable discussing gender differences, defecation, and sexuality.
Just how does bathroom language begin, anyway? For starters, it may help to realize that this is a central theme in child development for toddlers and preschoolers as they struggle to comprehend how their growing bodies work.
"Bathroom talk is really a way of understanding body parts, body products, and body functions, which are the things children this age are coming to grips with in their everyday life," says Timothy Jay, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams and the author of What To Do When Your Kids Talk Dirty.Not surprisingly, potty talk follows closely on the heels of potty training. What may be more surprising is that, without realizing it, many of us start our children on the road to potty talk when we teach them the basics of toileting.
"Think about the signals you send your 2-year-old when you say the word poop," says Dr. Jay. "If you wrinkle your nose, make a face, whisper, or giggle, your child will pick up on your subtle reactions."
All of this also coincides with a time when children are taking greater delight in experimenting with the use of words. Preschoolers enjoy mastering new language skills -- only now the words are linked to toileting and sexuality.
"Whatever words adults use for encouraging children to use the potty are words they'll start to use in doll play and peer play, not to mention in public," notes Peter Montminy, Ph.D., a child clinical psychologist and director of the Midstep Child Development Center in State College, PA.
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."
Ultimately, bathroom talk is more than just saying certain words. "It's also a child's way of coming to terms with cultural stigmas attached to talking about our bodies," says Dr. Jay. And even though we know that talking openly with our kids is the best policy, it's not always easy for us to shed our own inhibitions surrounding toileting and sexuality.
For this reason, be prepared: Your 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old is on to you! And he's going to have a lot of laughs trying to shock you during this inevitable phase. Here's what you can do about it: Stay calm. Your best defense is to avoid overreacting. Instead, focus on why your child is speaking this way. Does he want attention? Is he angry? Or is he trying to find a way to talk to you about something? Then respond with something neutral like "That's a new word" or "Those are funny jokes. I'll bet all your buddies say that at school."
"If you get upset or if you punish your child, you've told him the emotional value of the word -- to you it's a 'bad' word," explains Dr. Jay. Wallace agrees: "If you act shocked, or you laugh, the child will continue -- maybe even say more words."
Speak matter-of-factly. "Reply, 'Oh, what does that mean?' If children have to stop and think about it, it's not a silly game that will keep escalating -- it becomes just another word," says Wallace. "Downplay it and the novelty will soon wear off."
"Be cool," agrees Dr. Jay -- even if your own upbringing was different. "If your values are 'We don't talk like that in our house,' then the child will repress his feelings and the repression will manifest itself in other ways."
Today's experts advise encouraging children to think of penis and vagina as good words, which can be used in the house as an acceptable way of identifying and describing our bodies. Create a distraction. One solution is to change the subject: "I know you like those words. Let's go wash up now." Or introduce a new game. If your child wants to tell jokes, suggest that he tell jokes about subjects other than private body parts; this is a perfect time to read a book of riddles together.
"Your child is having a grand time repeating those words, and you can use this opportunity to channel all of his enthusiasm into a more positive activity," suggests Wallace. Ignore it. Your 3-year-old and her friend are giggling about bathroom words. If you're uncomfortable, just walk away. The key is to avoid battles, which will only exacerbate the problem.
Parents often complain that children learn bathroom talk at preschool. "It's not a big deal -- you don't have to react to everything," says Dr. Jay. "Realize that this is the world they live in. One way to get rid of it is to stop paying.
It's often most difficult to ignore -- and most embarrassing -- in crowded public places. If your child uses bathroom language when you're at the grocery store, ignore it until she moves onto another topic. If the person behind you seems horrified by it, tell him with a smile that this is a normal stage of child development.
Set limits. You set rules about bedtime, television habits, and safety issues. So why not establish guidelines about bathroom talk? Here are a few examples of how to explain to your child what's appropriate and what's not:
With guidelines like these, you're not only setting limits, you're also teaching your child an essential lesson about context. There are appropriate times and places for different behaviors.
Most preschoolers have difficulty controlling impulses until age 5 or 6, when they develop a conscience and start to internalize your rules. At that point they become more interested in learning and reading -- and generally leave potty humor behind.
Until then, experts advise parents to take a deep breath. "It's just a stage," notes Wallace. "If you can ignore it sometimes, it will subside."
Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the March 2000 issue of Child magazine.