“Knock knock. It’s poopy face. Can I come in?” This was said by one of my six-year-old twins. Cue the laugh track created by my three kids. Repeat said joke, and then repeat said joke 73 more times but replace the word poopy with butt cheek, doodie head, poopy pants, or farty fart and you too can have the scintillating dinner table conversation I experience each day.
I suspect you don’t need to work hard to recreate this scene. Kids are not only proficient in potty talk, but they are not shy about showing off their skills. Poop or poopy pants is not just the punch line, but the answer to most things. What’s the weather like? What time is it? How was school? The response is always poop. But why is this shitty language so appealing to kids?
Kids using potty talk as a form of humor is a really great (depends on how you define great, I suppose) sign of healthy cognitive development. The jokes may not be funny to parents and adults, but a child who strings some crappy words together to be silly is showing off their language development and ability to process information.
Between the age of two and three, children start to become more self-aware and are learning mean-ends reasoning through secondary mental representations of their world. So when kids constantly talk about defecating and urinating, they are also making connections to the actual products coming out of their bodies. Pooping and peeing are no longer foreign concepts, and kids are learning they have control over both processes. That is a big and scary thing for many children.
Kids also use potty talk as a way to release anxiety around the gigantic milestone that is potty training. Humor is a great coping mechanism even if done in inappropriate settings. Adults giggle when nervous and crack jokes when things get tense; we try to get a laugh at our own expense by using self-deprecating comedy when times are tough. Kids do the same thing but on an age-appropriate level. As stressful and exhausting as it is for the adults trying to get their children to pee and poop on the toilet, it’s just as emotionally fraught for toddlers.
Kids using potty talk as a form of humor is actually a really great sign of healthy cognitive development.
To take some of the fear and embarrassment out of having accidents or even attempting to sit on the toilet after only knowing the luxury of a diaper, kids will turn bathroom time into bathroom talk. Kind of like laughing when we’re sad or scared, kids turn potty training into an act of silliness by exercising their right to use the words of the actions they fear. Humor allows us to say something indirectly while letting others know we are uncomfortable. Also, laughing about poop and butts is way more fun than worrying about crapping your pants, especially when the words are used anywhere but in the bathroom.
Kids find it even funnier when they can get a rise out of a sibling or parent. Even though I don’t love the imagery that comes with rear end humor, I don’t mind the words they are saying as much as the chain reaction it causes. I tend to ignore the potty talk my children use several times an hour, but when they call each other names, I usually tell them to knock it off.
I barely censor my swearing around the kids so hearing them say poop or fart isn’t the problem. What drives me nuts is the chaos that swirls when all three of my kids egg each other on. The word poop and all relating synonyms lead to unbridled goofiness that never ends well. Laughing turns to yelling and that leads to wrestling, hitting, and my least favorite activity: tattling. I usually try to stop the person-directed potty talk before it turns into Tasmanian devil style living.
“Stop fighting! Your sister is not a poop face!”
Then they all giggle because I said poop face, and I remember nature is so much stronger than nurture on this one. Not only are they stretching their humor chops, they are pushing limits and trying to exert control. Words have power, and when our kids realize that the words they say can get our attention, they will use them to turn our focus onto them even if the attention is negative.
Many parents, myself included before I had three kids in three years and became too tired to put too much energy into stopping it, try to limit or stop their children from using bathroom humor. Just because it’s a sign of following the trajectory of so many others who will eventually outgrow this phase of childhood, it doesn’t mean all parents tolerate it. In an article in the New York Times, Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. suggests that parents allow kids to use the “forbidden” bathroom words during an allotted amount of time by giving them free reign or by turning it into a game where the parents get in on the act too.
Knowing they are “allowed” to use potty talk could take some of the temptation out of using the words over time. This exercise could also turn into quality bonding time with you and your child.
When kids constantly talk about defecating and urinating, they are also making connections to the actual products coming out of their bodies.
Before I had children, I thought I would be a healthy mix of a stern yet understanding parent who shows a lot of affection and goofiness. Then I had kids. I am still the things I had hoped for but I am also a lot of yelling and exacerbated sighing. I love laughing with my kids, but it’s hard to find the humor sometimes. Their giggles should be sounds of joy, but in my house they are also the precursor to absolute fuckery. My brain leaps to the crying, broken furniture, and missed bedtimes. I hesitate to lean into their silliness because it’s on the edge of insanity.
But there is nothing like a well-played fart joke to make them look at you like you are the coolest person on Earth. It’s important to remember to indulge their little hearts and minds sometimes, even if it’s in the name of poop.
The good news is that they will outgrow this phase. The bad news is that their humor will become more vulgar as they get older.