As a father was recently putting his 3-year-old son, David, to bed, he asked, “Who’s my best buddy?”
“Me,” said David.
“I love you,” said the dad, patting his son’s head.
“I love you, too, pee-pee head,” replied David.
Potty talk. Like other unpleasant habits, such as nose picking, your child will most likely outgrow it, but what do you do when your preschooler utters his or her first “pee-pee-head” or “poopy face?”
Try not to overreact by yelling or laughing, suggested Richard Patterson Jr., children and family life specialist in Clifton Park.
“Most kids at that age are learning and experimenting with language, and they like getting a reaction from their parents,” said Patterson. “Many times, it’s best to simply say that it’s better not to call people those names. It’s unkind and it makes people feel bad.”
Explain that those words belong in the bathroom, not at school, at the table or in public.
“It’s not that they can never be used, but tell them there is a right place and a wrong place to use them,” Patterson added.
Measuring the tone
Gretchen Kinnell, author of “Good Going: Successful Potty Training for Children in Child Care” and assistant director of the Child Care Council of Onondaga County in Syracuse, said children between the ages of 3 and 5 do a lot of experimenting with language.
“You’ll often see them say these words with a twinkle in their eye. So it’s kind of a combination of playing around with words and experimenting with words that push the envelope a little bit, to see what their parents’ response will be,” said Kinnell.
Most children will outgrow this stage within a year or two if their parents don’t make a big deal out of it, said Kinnell.
“I think the time to be concerned is when children are using it along with a meaning and tone of disrespect,” she said. “So if a child were to say, ‘I don’t have to listen to you, you poopy head,’ that’s when we have to do something about it.”
Rather than saying, “Don’t call me a bad word,” Kinnell suggested telling the child that what he just said was very mean, and we don’t talk that way in this household.
“So often we concentrate on the word, and we miss that intent,” she said. “It’s really not the words; it’s the intent to be disrespectful that we want to put a stop to,” she said.
To many preschoolers, potty talk is funny and delightful.
“If you come down heavy on it, you could destroy the child’s sense of lightheartedness,” Kinnell said.
“So if you really don’t want your children using those words, tell your children: ‘It’s not appropriate to use those words in our family.’ So then it doesn’t seem so heavy-handed and awful.”
Dr. Charles Shubin, director of pediatrics, Mercy Family Care, in Baltimore, and the grandfather of three children aged 7, 3 and 22 months, said the problem with potty talk isn’t the children but our reaction, which is usually laughter or anger.
“In simple terms, it’s attention-getting,” said Shubin. “He’s testing limits and he’s getting your attention.
Shubin suggested offering the child one minute of attention, per age, as a reward for whatever you want him to do — in this case not using potty talk.
“To a 3-year-old, three minutes is forever,” said Shubin. “To us, it’s nothing much. So read your child’s favorite book to him for three minutes.”
Dr. Carol Kessler, associate professor of education at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa., who is an expert in the assessment of young children, said children aged 3 to 5 like to shock.
“They look up at adults, and they are so large, and they control their lives, the kids just want some power and control over their own lives,” said Kessler.
Kessler suggested correcting them in a calm manner.
“We can’t ignore it,” she said. “We have to give them proper examples and be good role models for our children. I also don’t think parents should curse in front of their children, yet many people do. It’s very sad.”
Melissa Doyle, clinical director of the Behavioral Pediatric Program at Albany Medical Center, said preschool children are becoming more aware of their bodies and bodily functions, and one of the major developmental tasks they accomplish at that age is toilet training.
“I think they are also developing their sense of humor, and they are really beginning to understand that you can use humor to entertain people and make them laugh,” said Doyle.
If children use potty talk while playing with their friends, Doyle suggested removing them from the setting and telling them in a firm but calm voice that it hurts people’s feelings to call them names.
“The child has to understand that this behavior will not be rewarded,” said Doyle.
“If we can manage our own reactions and not laugh or act embarrassed, it gives the child very little power.”
Betsy Brown Braun of Hollywood, Calif., and author of “Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents,” said preschool children are beginning to become interested in their own bodies, especially the parts that have begun to be associated as private.
“Then when you throw into the mix the fact that most kids have only recently mastered toilet skills, it makes sense,” said Braun. “It’s is part of their development. “At the same time, they are also just beginning to develop and understand humor.”
So while their job is to test limits, your job is to enforce limits.
To get a handle on potty talk, Braun suggested:
-- Give kids information. Tell them that you understand that kids their age like to use those words, and it’s OK to use them with their friends or by themselves, but that adults do not like to hear them.
-- If at all possible, ignore it. “The more attention you give it, the more powerful they feel, and the longer it will stick around,” she said.
-- Mind your own language and the words you use.
-- Take the time to praise language that is appropriate.
-- Teach them other ways to be funny. “Kids like to learn about knock-knock jokes,” said Braun. “There are a lot of other ways to be funny that don’t involve potty talk.”