Why ‘Get it Out of Your System’ Fails

An experiment in permissiveness leads to a revelation and to getting called 'Penishead.'

The moment my 4-year old called me a “penis head,” I understood I’d made a terrible mistake. I couldn’t even really be mad at him. It’s not like he even understood “dickhead” to be an adult pejorative. And, besides, I was the dickhead who decided that, while his mother was off on a blissful vacation with her sisters, he and his brother would be allowed to get all the “potty talk” out of their systems. It was a bad plan from the get-go. I figured that out fairly quickly, but it took a bit longer to figure out why.

I will say this for myself: My motivations were as pure as my logic was flawed. We’d been struggling with the potty talk for so long. It had become a serious problem, what with all the talk of toots, poop, pee, bottoms and penises fouling up our nightly family dinner. So I thought I’d take the hit and give the boys a week to “get it out of their system” while their mother was out of town. As soon as she got back, I had warned them, they’d have to cut out the potty talk for good, or face consequences.

Far from getting it out of their system, my boys just used more potty talk without any indication that they were bored by it or likely to ever be bored by it.

To understand where I’d gone wrong, I called Dr. Alan Kazdin, a very smart Yale professor I talk to from time to time. He very kindly and very politely explained that my initial idea for a fix, getting it out of the system, was fairly common practice but also–and he phrased this more delicately–stupid.

“Reasoning is not a way to change human behavior,” Kazdin said. “Practice is the best way to get the behavior. And you had practice going on. It’s as if you said, ‘While mommy’s away, let’s practice like hell the behavior I don’t want.’”

It turns out, my initial idea was built on the concept of psychological catharsis. This concept came from Aristotle and was applied to psychotherapy by Freud. The essential idea of catharsis is that a person resolves pent-up problems through a kind of psychological purge like talking or reliving a traumatic experience. A more modern practice of catharsis might entail encouraging a violent child to purge latent violence by participating in violent sports or violent video games. This makes logical sense only if there’s a set amount of violence (or a set amount of desire to shout “penis”) in someone’s soul. There normally is not.

“We know that it usually doesn’t work,” says Kazdin. “The why it doesn’t has to do with the mistaken idea of the causes of things.” He notes that the modern idea of psychological catharsis is tied up in the understanding of physics from the 1950s when catharsis calcified in the public consciousness. This was that these emotional energies could move from one stage to another, essentially being depleted in the brain by moving it somewhere else. “We know now that some of the things we thought were cathartic make things worse”

So, by combining my mixed up ideas about catharsis with six days of intensive practice I’d ensured my wife was welcomed home to a veritable potty talk party. But, Kazdin assured me, there was a way to get rid of potty talk. We just had to practice the positive opposite.

Kazdin’s strategy involved setting up a relatively limited time where I essentially challenge the boys to not use potty talk, telling them that only really big kids can accomplish such a feat. Over the non-potty talk time, I would occasionally express my amazement they’re doing so well. And beyond the times we practiced the positive opposite, the trick was to happily recognize and praise them when they are talking well and not using potty talk.

“You have got to catch them being non-potty talk and program some time,” Kazdin says. “And then when potty talk does come your way, you’re not going to say a word. That does nothing.”

The initial trials have proven fruitful. It turns out my boys would rather receive my praise and amazement about them being big kids than cracking wise about butts. I for one am relieved, because nobody wants to be a dickhead.