Bathroom dilemmas

When is it safe to let kids use public washrooms on their own?

What do you do if you are a mom out with your son, or a dad out with your daughter, and your child needs to use a public washroom? Do you:

(a) send the child into the washroom alone?

(b) bring him or her in with you?

(c) seek out a trustworthy-looking adult (of the same gender as the child) and ask for help?

(d) tell the kid to “hold it” while you desperately search for a “one-stall” or family washroom?

When you have a toddler or preschooler, the decision is pretty obvious — you bring the child with you. But by the time your child is six or seven, you’re moving into a grey area and your child may have her own ideas.

John Marshall, the father of three boys and three girls, says that for him, “it depends on the child and what makes them comfortable. When my oldest daughter was six — she’s 11 now — she would panic if she encountered a problem. If there were no paper towels in the washroom, she would just stand quietly in the corner with her hands dripping wet — forever. I’d either take her into the men’s washroom with me, or look for a mother with children to ask to keep an eye on her in the women’s washroom.”

Of course, taking a girl into the men’s room has its own challenges, as Marshall acknowledges. He made sure his daughter closed her eyes so that she didn’t have to see any men using the urinals — and so the men wouldn’t be uncomfortable about her being there.

By contrast, his younger daughter, now eight, is just fine using the washroom on her own. “She’s extremely resourceful and can handle pretty much anything that comes her way, so I don’t worry too much about sending her in alone.” He does follow her lead, though — if she feels uncertain about going in alone, he’ll either take her into the men’s washroom or find another option.

Sergeant Ron Lord of the Guelph (Ont.) Police Service agrees with Marshall’s approach: “There are too many variables involved in these situations to give specific to-do’s. A lot depends on the maturity of the child, the type of building and who else is around. The safety of the child is paramount and parents should trust their instincts.”

Nicole Gardner says her six-year-old son would rather go into the men’s washroom alone than be escorted into the women’s washroom by his mom. She waits right outside the door, but admits to finding this strategy a bit anxiety provoking: “I definitely worry about him being molested in the washroom alone, but then I think these are my fears, not his.”

Kathy Miller* bases her decision on the child and the situation. “When I was at the airport with my three boys — ages three, six and seven — I made all three of them come in the washroom with me,” she says. “I just felt a large international airport was not the place to take chances. I do tend to think there is safety in numbers, so often when we are out I will send the two older boys in together, even if only one really needs to go.”

She adds: “I have noticed that there are more and more family washrooms or single-stall washrooms when we go out, so perhaps people are becoming aware that this is a challenge for families and are trying to improve the situation.”

When you have to go

What if you’re the one who needs to use the facilities? You might have felt OK about sending Johnny into the men’s washroom while you waited outside the door, but do you want to leave him alone in the restaurant while you go to the ladies’ room? Most parents we interviewed said that in this situation, if they couldn’t find another person to watch the child, they’d bring him or her into the washroom. “Try to ‘hold it’ until we find a better option” was another popular choice.

*Name changed by request.