"Do you want to smell my butt?" one of my 4-year-old son's playmates asked me the other day. Of course, he had absolutely no desire for me to take a whif of his tushie. He just thought it was funny to say the word butt -- and within a span of about five minutes, poop, poopyhead, and pee-pee pants too. Only a year or two ago, pee-pee pants was something we moms of preschoolers were trying to avoid, begging our kids to tell us when they had to use the potty, praising them if they made it in time. How ironic that just when preschoolers get their bathroom routine down pat, they become obsessed with talking about all things toilet. What gives?
"Kids this age have a budding sense of humor, and they know they'll get a response from potty language," explains Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. "Once other kids start giggling when a child says these sorts of things, it reinforces the behavior." Fortunately, you can give your child's potty talk the big flush.
Traditional discipline strategies -- like time-outs or taking a toy away -- don't work well for this problem, and they could even be harmful: "They may make your child feel ashamed and stop her from mentioning anything bathroom-related," says Dr. Borba. "It's important to let her know that her body and its functions are normal and she can talk to you and ask questions." That's why pediatric experts have these other tricks up their sleeve. Welcome to potty training, part 2.
Although it's impossible to prevent another 5-year-old from cracking up when your daughter announces that her sister has "stinky pants," you can control your own reaction. "Children see that certain language lends itself to getting attention," explains William Warzak, Ph.D., professor of psychology in the pediatrics department at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in Omaha. "If you keep things matter-of- fact and don't laugh, show embarrassment, or start to get angry, the potty talk may lose its appeal." At the same time, praise your child's positive behavior -- for example, when she plays by herself, builds a tower from wooden blocks, or draws you a picture.
"One of the best ways for little kids to learn is by teaching," says Dr. Borba. So when your child starts with the bathroom chatter, don't correct him, but rather suggest that he give a lesson to someone else. You can say, ''Oh, my gosh, I hear Teddy Bear using potty talk. What do you want to tell Teddy to do instead?"
Children this age want to get a laugh, not hurt anyone's feelings. But they might not realize that calling a friend or a family member these kinds of names is doing exactly that. "Ask your child to think about how it would make him feel if one of his playmates called him 'poopyhead,'" suggests Jonathan Pochyly, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago.
If your child keeps saying "butt," turn it into a game. Challenge her to come up with words that rhyme with the troublesome word, suggests Pam Rinn, director of programs for Camp Fire USA First Texas Council. Or take turns naming words that begin with the same letter. "Eventually, she will forget the unacceptable word because she is focusing on thinking of other words," Rinn says.
Since your child uses potty talk to be funny, getting her a joke or riddle book may put the brakes on it, says Charlie Williams, a kids' comedian and author of Flush! An Ode to Toilets. Read the book with her often so she'll remember the jokes.
If all else fails, explain to your child that potty talk belongs, well, in the bathroom, says Dr. Warzak. Ask her to go there when she wants to use this language. Chances are, she'll come out quickly because she's bored.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Parents magazine.