I have three boys. Two are between the ages of four and six — prime specimen for the potty-talking stage. The other is still just babbling but has already been coached by his older and wiser brothers as to the comedic value of words like “toot” and “poop”.
Why is it that young children have such a giddy fascination with all things scatological?
The question has probably been around since the dawn of time, and you could likely find more answers than there are rest stops on your next family road trip. In my opinion, most difficult behaviors in young children are driven by one or both of two motivators: Power and Attention.
Here are a few ways Potty Talk fits the mold:
- Young children have fairly recently tackled the task of toilet training. Laughing at something is one way to show complete superiority. Like a hero laughing in the face of danger.
- Vocabularies grow at lightning speed for young children. They are constantly acquiring new words. They are also quick to note that some words are used with greater emphasis and sound powerful. Those words go to the front of the line for language acquisition. (Take note the next time you hear someone use a swear word or vulgar langauge. If you didn’t understand the meaning, would you be able to pick out the taboo word just by the way it was said or the reaction it got? Kids often can.)
- When children know a word is taboo, defying that limit is a display of power.
- Humor is a developing frontier for these young ones, and they’ve noticed there is one topic that never fails to get results…
- Even if you don’t find this restroom raillery to be funny, if you respond with dramatic shock or exaggerated displeasure, your child has still secured your attention.
So aside from waiting for adulthood (which doesn’t always cure the fascination with the foul) what can you do to curb the crudeness?
As is often true of behavior, the answer lies in the causes.
- Feed your child’s power by casually commenting that he is too smart/polite to use those words that way. Offer better words — whether they better communicate the desired emotion, or are silly enough to get the laugh. Make up your own silly words together! Play up the fact that these words are better, smarter, or more polite.
- Knowledge is power. Often, matter-of-fact discussions demystify questions like “Where does poop come from?” “Where does it go?” and “Who else toots?” and the topic begins to lose its comedic allure.
- Teach that power comes from polite words. Particularly if the behavior is becoming obviously habitual, teach your child that using inappropriate language leads to less power through consequences. Be matter-of-fact about it however. Over-reacting only feeds the second factor.
- As difficult as it may be to keep from snickering at your child’s silliness or delving into an intense lecture, attention usually only fans the flames. Particularly if it is a first offense, ignoring is one of the best ways to go. My son once uttered something I could not have even imagined coming out of his three year old lips. As I was two words into a scathing reprimand, it occurred to me that he was simply playing with sounds, and had absolutely no idea that he had said anything of meaning –obscene or otherwise. Instead of “That’s NOT something we say in our home!” I made a mid-sentence lane-change into “That’s not even a real word!” My shocked tone slid into a silly tone and a discussion on other silly words diverted the rest of the attention. I haven’t heard the word since. (Though I have a sneaking suspicion that my first impulse would have led to more experimentation.)
- Walk away, continue on without missing a beat, or reprimand simply with a stern look or a simple, “We need polite words here”.
- Provide better attention-getting tactics by teaching “smarter”, “funnier” jokes and give your full attention (and full belly laughs) when he uses those avenues instead.
- Teach context. Often, it isn’t the words that inappropriate, it’s the way they’re used. Remind children that, “Those are bathroom words. If you want to use them, please go into the bathroom.” This gives children a place to experiment while still teaching social appropriateness and draining the words of their novelty.
You also must acknowledge your child’s developmental level. Young children are learning about language and social rules. You may need to teach these rules explicitly. (“I know your friends laugh at those kinds of words, but they aren’t polite when they’re used that way. You are a kind and polite child, but if someone heard those words from you they might not know that.”) These lessons are often more effective away from the howling laughter of his peers. Try initiating them at bed time, story time, or while doing chores together…. perhaps while scrubbing the toilet.
How do you react to “Potty Talk”?
Top photo by sskies.
Center photo by Jonathan Hillis.