Help! My child has a potty mouth

For many kids, nothing's funnier than using words that make mom and dad uncomfortable

iStock

“All they want to talk about is their bums,” complains Shirley Broback, mother of a five-year-old and a three-year-old. “When they’re in the bathroom, they sing — loudly — ‘I have poo in my butt, I have poo in my butt. Here comes the poo out of my butt.’ And they both think it’s hilarious.”

Her one consolation? “All their friends talk the same way.”

It’s true. We tend to describe someone as having a potty mouth if she swears a lot, but many preschoolers have their own version: They talk about body parts and bathroom functions endlessly, and find it all incredibly funny.

Sally Kotsopoulos, manager of Ryerson University’s Early Learning Centre in Toronto, says we may have ourselves to blame. “We’ve taught them these words when we’re toilet training them, and when they first come to us and say, ‘I have to poop,’ we respond with praise and encouragement.” And we think it’s cute when a two-year-old claps her little hands and says, “Pee-pee!” But then it’s not so adorable when she’s four and threatening to pee on her little brother if he doesn’t give back her doll.

Kotsopoulos notes other factors that contribute to bathroom humour:

The power of words Preschoolers are just discovering that words like “poopy,” “fart” and “vagina” get a strong reaction from adults, and can make their playmates laugh. The bigger the reaction — good or bad — preschools get, the more they’re likely to continue their verbal onslaught. “Children this age are just beginning to play with language,” says Kotsopoulos. “They are trying out using words in different contexts and different ways, and what’s more fun than experimenting with words that get a reaction out of all the adults?”

Learning to tease While bathroom words can be used to insult and express anger, just as often they are used to tease and make other children laugh. This can be a way of confirming the strength of a relationship (“I can call you poop-head and we can both laugh because we know we’re friends”).

Imitation Maybe you’ve never said the word butt in your life, yet your four-year-old uses it every day. Kotsopoulos reminds parents that you’re not the only model for your kids, and often children in school or daycare pick up bathroom humour from each other. If it makes all the other kids laugh, what preschooler can resist?

How you deal with potty talk depends on your child’s age. “With a three-year-old, the best approach is to ignore it,” says Kotsopoulos. “Don’t be shocked, don’t laugh — just redirect the child to another activity or topic of conversation.” She admits that it’s not always easy to do, but if the child isn’t getting much of a reaction, he’ll soon move on to something else.

A great way to redirect a child is to introduce funny (and silly) children’s poetry, such as Dr. Seuss classics. This will give him another way to play with words that teaches him about rhyme and language — while steering him away from bodily functions.

With five-year-olds, though, “you may need to sit down and have a frank conversation with them,” Kotsopoulos says. “Explain that these words can upset people and can hurt people’s feelings if they are used as insults. Unless you explain it, children may not understand that there are times when it’s appropriate and times when it’s not. You have to set out the rules.”

The staff at her children’s daycare gave Broback another suggestion: “They told me to tell the kids that bathroom words can only be used in the bathroom,” she says. “So I made that the rule at home, and it seems to be helping. Of course, sometimes they run into the bathroom and yell, ‘Poop, poop, poop,’ but I figure they’ll outgrow it. Right?”

FILED UNDER: