One of the more disconcerting moments of parenthood is when a sweet angel preschooler suddenly falls in love with potty talk. This never happens at an opportune moment, but it always happens. For instance, a kid might yell “I tooted” during church or tell a relative they’ll poop on them at the dinner table. The result? The kid thinks they’re the funniest person on earth and the parent wants to get very small or very angry. But, while the potty talk is rude, it’s only truly rude in the wrong context. The trick for parents is in knowing when to ignore it and when to play the censor.
It’s no accident that kids suddenly become little Richard Pryors when they hit preschool. This is also around the time a kid starts using the toilet. So “poop” suddenly becomes one of the more important words in their lexicon along with pee, butt, toots, and other words that center around toilet use.
“They’re trying to figure out, developmentally, where this stuff goes in technical terms,” explains positive psychologist and author of Laugh More, Yell Less: A Guide to Raising Kick-Ass Kids Dr. Robert Zeitlin. “That’s a part of them being flushed down the toilet. There also being held responsible for holding in their pee or poop when they’re asleep or at school.”
And while all of those things make it obvious why the scatological is on their mind pretty much constantly, there’s something else that makes potty talk pretty irresistible: “It’s just funny,” Zeitlin explains. And parents often have a tough time hiding the fact that they, too, think it’s funny — even as they try to make a stern face. But kids aren’t dumb and are super observant. They can spot a turned-up corner of the mouth from across a dining room table.
“For us to try to squeeze the funny out of it, is perhaps a hopeless endeavor,” Zeitlin says.
What’s more, the harder parents try to not make it funny. The more parents fail. That’s because children like pushing boundaries. It’s how kids figure out where they fit in the world. And they learn very quickly that talking about what goes on below the belt is a doozy of a boundary. After all, kids already understand that the world no longer wants to deal with their crap, in the most literal sense, and is forcing them to use a toilet. But, also, when a single word can make a parent react in such an interesting way, why not lean into the “farts” and “pees” and see where it goes?
This boundary testing is ultimately how preschoolers add to their body of knowledge about what is appropriate in any given context. They’re working on this as they enter preschool, which is trying for teachers but also what adults with weird senses of humor do at dinner parties. Kids soon figure out that there are things that can be done at home that can’t be done a preschool. And there are things that can be done outside in the playground that can’t be done in the classroom. So dealing with the potty talk is mostly about helping them understand when to use it in the appropriate context.
How to Deal With Preschool Potty Talk
- Understand that children use potty talk because they’re trying to figure out their world.
- Don’t try to make it not funny. It is obviously funny.
- Teach context by creating boundaries around where potty talk can happen.
- Acknowledge a child’s sense of humor and redirect when potty talk is inappropriate.
Of course, the appropriate context will range from family to family. Some might let siblings use potty talk while they play, but place a moratorium on saying poop or pee at the dinner table or in public. Others parents might not want that kind of talk ever in the house. “The challenge is how do you explain the context,” Zeitlin says. “You want to keep it simple and on their level. Focus on how you’re preparing them for horse-play versus dinner table versus school versus grandparents’ house.”
Zeitlin suggests that if potty talk comes out at the table, the key isn’t to tell them it’s not funny. It is. He suggests, instead, praising the child for their sense of humor, but then telling them that the dinner table isn’t the place for that kind of humor. Then, maybe direct them to something else that’s silly or funny, appropriate for the context. Along with this, of course, is ignoring the potty talk when there’s no reason to get on their case about it. That’s simply another way parents can help kids figure out the boundaries. No one wants to raise a jokeless human.
“Honestly, a key ingredient to family culture is humor,” Zeitlin says. “Being clear about the boundaries appropriate for your family so your kids know what context is appropriate to be loose, funny, sensitive, or listening.”