The phenomenon of kids preferring the outdoors — it’s often the yard — to the bathroom is slightly underdiscussed given how common it is. Many children exhibit a sort of mental porcelain allergy that leads to them squatting behind trees or in bushes. And this is, if you endeavor to see it from their perspective, logical. Dogs get to poop outside so there’s precedent, toilets are for grown-ups so there’s that, and flushing is loud and scary so there’s a fear factor as well. The good news is that fear of the toilet is seldom linked to any developmental disorders, so the most stressful part of it is curbing your kid in front of the neighbors.
“Some kids have a fear of flushing the toilet and hearing the loud flow of water gushing into the toilet,” explains physician Dianah T. Lake. Psychotherapist Fran Walfish agrees, adding some colorful specifics. “Some boys fear dropping feces into the toilet because of an unconscious worry of losing their penis at the same time,” Walfish says. “The flushing raises anxiety for fear of permanent loss. It is an unconscious castration anxiety.”
Yes, Freud loved this stuff.
Pooping in inappropriate places is technically known as “Encopresis” and pediatricians don’t worry about it until age four. You shouldn’t either, unless the encopresis is a result of chronic constipation. Generally speaking, young children poop outside because they’re still learning when and where it’s appropriate to go to the bathroom. They spend much of their time playing outside, and it’s more convenient (not to mention fun) to poop in a bush than it is to stop playtime for a bathroom run. Besides, everything from squirrels, rabbits, and deer to the family dog poops outside. It feels right.
In some cases, children may poop outside because they’re afraid of the toilet—or, more precisely, they’re afraid of objectively terrifying adult-sized seats with kid-sized holes in them that scream as they suck away feces with impunity. It’s not the most illogical fear. There is limited evidence that full-fledged toilet phobia may be a symptom of autism. ““I’ve seen kids flush the toilet, and immediately run off to avoid the loud flush,” says Lake.
But, as Walfish puts it, fear of the toilet can also bely fear of being the toilet’s next victim. If it can do that to poop, what might the porcelain thrown do to any body part unlucky enough to get caught in the riptide? Indeed, the fear of losing one’s penis with the next flush may explain why boys account for 80 percent of encopresis cases, Walfish says.
Explicable it may be, but acceptable it is not—parents need strategies for ending outdoor pooping habits and transitioning their kids to the bathroom. Lake suggests that parents reinforce the idea that big boys and big girls are supposed to relieve themselves on a toilet and nowhere else, and then praise and reward kids who comply. Walfish echoes these sentiments, adding that staying calm and consistent, without pushing kids before they are ready, is the best way to get your sons and daughters through this rough patch, and keep potty-training inside.
“Treating constipation, addressing the fear of the flushing toilet, and neutralizing shame associated with previous occurrences are all helpful in yielding potty success,” Lake says. “But if a child is persistently choosing to defecate outdoors or in other inappropriate places for more than two to three months, it’d behoove the parents to seek counseling from a developmental pediatrician or their primary pediatrician.”