My son, like most two-year olds, is a curious bird. Public washrooms are a new landscape he loves exploring, testing out the various flush systems and activating automated soap dispensers and hand dryers (then putting his hands over his ears and shouting “Loud, Mommy!”). It’s all pretty cool. My four-year-old daughter, meanwhile, has a new pastime: crawling under the door to say hello. All the more exciting if she gets the wrong stall.
Public washrooms are interesting – and sometimes terrifying – places for children, says Ottawa early childhood educator Kristy Simons. “They aren’t particularly friendly for young children, with toilets you can fall in, sinks you can’t reach, and toilets that flush on their own. They can be startling, especially if you have a child that is hypersensitive to loud or sudden noises,” says the mother of two.
Simons says that if your child is afraid of the public washroom, traumatic memories can stick with them, so be sensitive and try to make the experience easier. “For example, if you know the automated flush terrifies them, cover it with your hand until they leave the stall. If they’re afraid of falling in the toilet, bring a potty seat.” Keep a hand towel in your bag so you can hightail it out of the bathroom to sidestep those loud hand dryers.
Children at this developmental stage also need to be shown how to behave in public. “There are lots of teachable moments around proper behaviour in public washrooms. Waiting in line is a great opportunity to model the concept of patience for children old enough to grasp it,” says Simons (and a good reminder to not wait until the last minute to let you know they have to go). “Reinforcing manners, respect and privacy from a very young age is important. At home you can say, ‘Mommy is going to the washroom and would like some privacy.’ This teaches respect for themselves and for others when you’re out.”
But what’s really on parents’ minds is germs. Do you need to cover the toilet seat with paper before they sit down, or as they grow older, teach them to hover, so their little bums don’t come in contact with bacteria? How bad are the germs in public washrooms?
University of Toronto microbiologist James Scott says we shouldn’t be too worried. “North American standards of hygiene are incredibly high. Restroom surfaces are covered with bacteria, but in terms of a hazard to us, there isn’t a lot of research supporting the idea that diseases are transmitted through the use of public washrooms.”
In fact, those bacteria might be necessary. “I’m a big proponent of the hygiene hypothesis,” says Scott, referring to the theory that our environments are becoming more sterile, which is a contributing factor to our body’s decreasing ability to fight infections and increasing allergy and asthma rates. “We might need some of this bacteria – they could be good for our gut.”
Read more: Are germs good for your child?>
So, instead of worrying about invisible germs lurking on door handles, Scott recommends you focus on the basics: Look for visible evidence of the last person on the toilet seat and if so, give it a wipe. Flushes and faucets are covered with bacteria, so use a piece of paper towel to touch those surfaces. Or, quite simply, employ a good handwashing regimen and teach your kids how to do it properly after they’ve done their business. Carrying around a travel-size alcohol-based sanitizer is good idea, too.
Simons always looks for family washrooms, where kids and parents can both enjoy a little privacy in their public endeavours: “Kids feel more comfortable and can usually reach the taps and dispensers more easily. Anytime they can conquer a new skill on their own, it builds self-esteem.”
A version of this article appeared in our January 2014 issue with the headline “Going public.”