Ask the Expert: What to Do When Children Use ''Bathroom Language''
By Timothy Jay, Ph. D.

What is the best way to deal with my four-year-old nephew and his new-found fondness for using “bathroom words”? My daughter is the same age, and they attend the same preschool and spend a lot of time together outside of school. The pair have another best friend, and the three of them are often referred to as the “three musketeers.” This friend has an older brother in first grade who has a lot of influence over the boys. The first grade boy has been bringing home lots of “bathroom words” and the little boys think that he is “so cool” and really funny. My nephew has started using these words at home. The words are not nasty, and they come out most of the time in little rhymes. However, my sister was informed recently that the preschool teachers have also been hearing these words at school. They have told the children that these words are bathroom words and that they are not to use them at school, but the problem doesn’t seem to be going away. What can we do? I don’t want my daughter to start this behavior.
– Lisa Young, Vancouver, British Columbia

First of all, bathroom language is very common at this age because children are learning about their bodies and functions. You can expect them to have questions about sexuality by grade school and other problems with profanity in adolescence. It would be odd if children were not interested in these issues. Children’s preoccupation with taboo language is universal.

You must be clear and consistent about what you want them to do and say when they have to go to the bathroom or talk about their bodies. Decide what language is never acceptable, what language is always acceptable, and what you will tolerate. These boundaries are up to you and the teachers. It is not sufficient to tell the children not to use these words and leave it at that. You and the teachers must tell them what words are always acceptable. Clinical words are generally acceptable. I do not recommend using baby language (pee pee, tinkler) because you will have to reteach them adult words and why teach them twice? You can make a rule, “In my house (school) we use ‘penis’ (also, vagina, bathroom, BM, urinate, etc).” You don’t have to tell them why, just make the statement. If the children persist at using unacceptable words, give a warning, “I told you to use penis. If you say that word again, you will get a time out (or go to your room, some negative consequence).” They will associate a negative consequence with rule breaking and change their behavior.

Another dynamic occurs because the children see each other outside of the school context. Because these children are in frequent contact they take the liberty to be more playful with each other than with other children at school. This play will include making rhymes, telling jokes, touching, and teasing. They need to be told what is acceptable at home and what is acceptable at school. Besides their interest in bathroom language for its own sake, they may be using the language to get your attention or the teachers’ attention. If they are using language to seek attention, then you have to ask, “Why do they need my attention, aren’t I giving them enough?” My guess is that the three musketeers are getting a good deal of attention from the teachers and other students for this negative behavior and that the attention reinforces the use of bathroom language.

In both home and school, there appears to be a “policing problem,” where obedience is only a good as the means to police it and maintain it. When teachers or parents aren’t around, you can count on children stretching the rules. Children are frequently unsupervised by teachers, parents, or other adults. There is not much you can do about this. Children will take these moments to pass down jokes, stories, and language that has been otherwise forbidden. Children have always done this. However, when parents and teachers hear what has been previously ruled as inappropriate, then they must take the responsibility to remind the children of the rules and give consequences if consequences are warranted. Also keep your cool at all times. Don’t overreact or attempt to punish when you are angry.

Timothy Jay, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He is an expert psycholinguist and is author of Cursing in America and What to Do When Your Students Talk Dirty. Both of these publications are available from Resource Publications by calling 1-408-286-8505.

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