Dear Sara…

“As children’s awareness of themselves grows, they become quite aware of the body parts they and others have, and those body parts are highly interesting. But grownups aren’t talking about them, and we don’t like to. So they need to create a “party atmosphere” to bring up the subject, and to keep it on the table. If we were more enthusiastic, maybe they wouldn’t have to provide so much of the enthusiasm. But it’s part of integrating yourself as a human being to pay attention to who you are, what your equipment is, and how it all works.”

~Patty Wipfler

Happy New Year! What better way to start than to hear some advice on how to handle potty talk?

photo credit: savvy mom

Dear Sara,

Help! We are stuck in a poop/potty words joke phase nightmare. I know using potty words as jokes is very age appropriate, but we are having a hard time teaching when it’s okay to use those words and not. It really encroaches into every aspect of our time at home together, and has also started to seep out into outings with other kids (which I don’t think all parents appreciate, and it is embarrassing as a parent- even if it is developmentally appropriate).

For example at the dinner table the words “poop, look at my butt, poop face” often come up and the kids dissolve into laughter. We have tried to talk about not using those words at the dinner table saying “I’m eating I don’t want to think about poop etc”. I have tried to initiate different topics, and encouraged saying one nice thing to each other (which immediately became “I like your poop face!”)  How do we move past this?  How do we enforce no potty words at the table?

Also, I feel like we say the phrase “that’s not appropriate, don’t say that” until we are blue in the face. Often after bath Rhys is hyped up and will run around sticking his butt in the air and say “look at my butt” or “lick my butt”, then crack up.

It is just frustrating. Any advice is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

~ Becky


Hi Becky,

Uh-oh!! HA! Welcome to one of the joyful phases of parenthood!

Okay, so this really boils down to control. As you know, you cannot actually control what your kids say, or where they say it. You can only control your response and attitude regarding this (as you acknowledged) VERY common developmental phase. I did a search for this topic in the respectful parenting group we both belong to and there are some great suggestions, but also it’s so reassuring to see that other parents (and other children) are struggling with the exact same issue. It’s one thing to say that this phase is “normal”, and it’s another to get actual glimpses of your identical situation going on in many other households. For me, this always helps ease the fear of judgement when things happen out in public. I try and remind myself in the moment that everyone struggles behind closed doors, and I’ve grown to slough off what others think about me as a parent. Not to say that parental judgement isn’t real, or doesn’t make me feel tense at particularly overwhelming times, just that I actively do the internal work of rigorously challenging WHY it’s uncomfortable…and continue to analyze and challenge the conventional aspects and expectations that revolve around the topic of social decorum (especially how it pertains to young children).

From your letter it seems evident that even though you are trying to stay unruffled and meet the behavior with firm boundaries, Rhys (5) in particular is picking up on your discomfort with these particular words. He is probably feeding off this and sensing the extreme power they seem to hold. He probably feels a bit uncomfortable too…knowing that something that he finds genuinely hilarious and silly, is being met with frustration and discomfort.

I know this advice isn’t for everyone, but have you tried engaging in his silliness? Joining him in the humor of it? So when he says something like “lick my butt!” you could say “no thanks, I’ve already had some butt today!” This is the way I usually engage with my kids when they get fired up using the poop and pee talk. This is one avenue that you can explore that takes some of the power out of the words themselves. It is usually what enables the child to feel more at ease and then the allure of using the words passes…eventually.

I think it’s worth reflecting on why these words make you so uncomfortable and unpack some of the feelings around that. Really focus on how you feel when they are doing this…ashamed? Disempowered? Embarrassed? Angry? Irritated? I think uncovering why you are reacting in the way you are will help guide you in moving forward.

So, if you’d like to set firm boundaries around using this language here is what I can recommend. You can remove yourself from the situation if it’s truly bothering you to hear those words at home. You can say something like “I’m going in the other room. I don’t want to listen to this right now,” making sure your tone is neutral, so as not to give the words themselves power. You are simply advocating for yourself (and your sanity) in that scenario. I say this only because it is physically impossible to *respectfully* stop this behavior in them, and in fact the more you try, the more likely they are to do it. As far as outings go, you can set a limit around staying somewhere, acknowledging “I know you’re excited to be here. Your friends are here too! I can’t let you say these words while we are here. If it’s too hard for you to stop, we’ll have to go.” This one’s tricky because, again, it has to be said without a trace of threatening or shaming to be effective…very matter-of-fact. And you have to follow through which is very hard to do sometimes.

The last tactic that is generally pretty effective is simply ignoring the words. Again, the words we adults tend to focus on, and feel alarmed about, become extraordinarily powerful…and children are built to test the limits of their power. Especially at 5, when power dynamics in particular are what they are drawn to explore with peers, teachers and their parents all day, every day. You will often see children seek out relationships that challenge or confirm their notions of power. They might befriend someone who they can feel powerful around, or occasionally even someone who overpowers them…and it’s all part of the increasing social-emotional awareness that is rapidly developing within them. They are learning so much about themselves and about others by doing this, even though it can make us feel worried or uneasy. We want children to get along…but they are compelled to seek out conflict and contradiction. It’s exhausting! Ha!

I hope this was at least a little helpful. Good luck in taking the power out of the poop!


P.S. Did you know that Mozart actually had a raunchy, scatological sense of humor. It is well documented that he made jokes about poop in his letters…just a fun fact!

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