In the thick of potty training months, I was all about discussing bathroom words with my two oldest sons. Pee, poo, fart – you name it, we talked (and laughed) at length about it. Fast forward to ages five and seven, however, and the constant references to bodily functions have become, well, not so cute.
Experts say it’s usually around age three that many children will develop a fascination with “bathroom” words, and if not nipped in the bud, the fixation will gain momentum. According to Dr. Kimberly Ann Lemke, author of I Just Don't Get My Parents’ Rules! and a child, adolescent and adult psychologist from Naperville, Ill., it’s at this precocious age that kids start to look for attention, and words like these deliver. “Being in environments where they're surrounded by other kids who will laugh and giggle and reinforce the use of these words is a big incentive to use them. The knowledge that parents and teachers don’t like them also makes kids want to say the words even more,” she says.
What’s the fix? Dr. Lemke says that once a child is no longer using these words to help with potty training, that’s the time for parents to start setting clear expectations about language, but adds that it’s never too late to turn the behaviour around. “The bottom line is that you need to teach your child family expectations and you can do that at any age, but starting early means you save yourself the frustration of trying to undo months or years of continued unsavoury vernacular.”
Keep in mind that children are seeking some kind of reaction from you when using these words, so it’s essential that you don't reinforce their behaviour with any emotion. “Parents sometimes feel that if they respond in a scolding fashion that the child will be less likely to use these words. But what actually happens is, the child will continue to use these words because they know it gets to you.”
The best thing you can do, she advises, is inform your child that your family does not use potty words, and then turn your back and ignore any attempts they make to use them. “This technique can be hard to swallow for parents, but often it’s enough to make your child use the words less because they realize you are no longer reacting to them. In the long run, it teaches kids to find alternative, positive ways to gain attention, which only helps them in many areas of their life.”
Some kids will respond to diversion tactics, but Dr. Kimberly Anne Lemke says others may need a different approach. She suggests a reward-based program for getting your child on track.
Set up a chart with the days of the week outlined, breaking each day into four sections (morning, afternoon, evening and bedtime). Then, choose a start date and get your child excited about the process. Say something like, “Liam, starting tomorrow morning, you'll have the chance to earn stickers when you don’t use potty language inappropriately.” Let him know that he'll get to choose a prize once he earns a set number of stars. Introducing a small prize after six to eight stars will keep kids interested.
Reap the rewards
When he earns a star, tell him how proud you are. Once he’s earned a prize, head to the dollar store. Let your child pick out any five things he likes, as long as they are safe. From there, place the items in a ‘treasure box’ and dole out as needed. If your child is struggling, you may want to reward after four stars. Once the child learns the expectations and begins receiving prizes, push back the rewards so your child is rewarded on a weekly basis.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, July/August 2015.