There is a wonderful book called “Everyone Poops”, that many moms have found helpful when toilet training their children. It’s true that everyone poops, and it is also true that many children go through a “poop talk” phase during which bathroom language suddenly makes an appearance, much to the chagrin of parents. Usually, children are in pre-school programs around this time and distraught mothers often attribute the use of such language to other children in school.
While children’s horizons do broaden once they are out in a larger social world, and the “poop talk” is not just a product of spontaneous combustion, children at this stage do share a common interest in body functions. The process of toilet training puts the focus on one’s body and what comes out of it. Young children have a great interest in their own poop – by whatever name it has been designated in their own family.
Many children do not start out sharing the sounds and facial expressions conveying “dirty” or “disgusting” that adults express. The poop comes out of their bodies and as such has value. Often, children are reluctant to part with it and resist the toilet where it is flushed away and disappears. It is as though they have lost part of their bodies. Sometimes children may be reluctant to take that next step to more independent functioning that parting with diapers implies.
Toilet training itself involves mastering the control needed to meet adult requirements that these functions be regulated according to time and place. Children are working hard – at times under adult pressure – to establish such control. What better outlet than to substitute words for the actual poop. Instead of the poop coming out of your body, the words can come out of your mouth without control. Unhappily, the words seem just as unacceptable to mom and dad as does the poop in the pull-ups.
Trying to get children to control their words at the same time that they are trying to control the poop itself, is something of a lost cause. Or more to the point, trying to stop children from talking poop is futile. If you think about it, we end up trying to control two things at once, body function and speech. And this at a point in development where children are apt to be somewhat defiant about controls anyway.
What most parents learn – often the hard way – is that once children find they can get a rise out of you, they are delighted to do it again, and again. At first it can seem like a bit of teasing. But if parents become more punitive or threatening in their responses, children are apt to become more defiant, and no-win confrontations are the result. Your children have discovered that some words have a lot of power!
At some point interest in poop and bathroom talk fades out. But the interest in the body does not, and poop words often mutate into genital words. This may coincide with a time when there is greater awareness and interest in the differences between boys’ and girls’ bodies. Without getting too Freudian with thoughts of castration anxiety, just paying attention to the behavior of little boys is enough to persuade you that they seek to reassure themselves that their male equipment is intact. Here, too, the use of words contributes to a sense of mastery and power. Little boys enjoy affirming their maleness – particularly with their mothers – by the assertive way they repeat names for genitals. The shock value alone can give them a sense of power.
So how can we respond to “poop talk” and the later stages of provocative talk and name calling that follow? The talk seems to serve a useful purpose in helping children master other concerns they may have about their bodies and body functions. But the other side of this is that they also function in a social world where certain language is considered inappropriate. (Although sometimes it is hard to tell if there are any boundaries left anymore.)
Actually, the spontaneous reaction of parents when such language first appears makes it immediately clear to children that their parents disapprove. Only when it is turned into a big issue do children use it to bait their parents, and ongoing conflict is created. You can let children know that you recognize how much they enjoy saying these words but that other people don’t enjoy hearing them. After that, the most useful policy is to ignore the language and change the subject. Without the reaction, the provocation loses its appeal.
With “poop talk” and its later variants, children sometimes are expressing confusion or asking a question about something they or others are experiencing. You may be able to recognize that in the context of their talk, or in the way they are using the language. If children sound mixed up or confused in what they are saying, it can be helpful to let them know that, and to ask if there is something they would like to ask or to know more about.
But most of the time talking poop is just what kids do – just like they poop.