The one who guards his mouth and tongue keeps himself out of trouble. Psalm 21:23
I love teaching four year olds. They are such fun to be around as they explore, push boundaries, learn, laugh, play, grow in independence and figure out how to get along in the world with others.
But there is one part of being four-ish that tends to cause a lot of embarrassment and discomfort among adults. It is the very typical, very predictable, very normal phase of using “potty words”.
So two questions come to mind. Why do they do this and what is a parent to do?
First, let’s look at the “why”. When your child was a toddler, toilet learning was a very big part of his life. Potty words were commonly used as your child learned to control his bodily functions and go “pee pee” or “poo poo” in the potty. No embarrassment then, right? That was just normal daily talk.
Well, now he’s four. He has mastered toilet learning. He has learned to control his bodily functions. He is big and powerful and very impressed with his accomplishments. So now, all of a sudden, conversation about toileting and related body parts has become “forbidden”.
What do you do with that new information when you’re four? How do you figure out what to do with those words and your thoughts about toileting? Well, you do what preschool-age kids do. You experiment and see what happens.
And what happens? You get a reaction! Hmmm. The four year old’s thoughts might be something like this, “When I say, ‘poo poo head’, people laugh! That’s fun. I like making people laugh. I’ll say it again – and again – and again.”
Four-year-olds are developing a sense of humor. They love to laugh and to make other people laugh. They are miniature comedians at that age. So when other kids (or adults) laugh at their potty words, the behavior is reinforced.
Another reaction that is also a powerful reinforcer is that adults get upset. The four year old’s thought processes here might go something like this. “Wow! Look how powerful I am. Just by saying “poo poo head”, I can make Mom turn red in the face. That was interesting. I wonder what Grandpa will do.”
Four year olds are growing in their sense of independence, while also knowing that they are small and powerless in the adult word. They are pushing boundaries and working hard to figure out what is appropriate in different settings. When they learn that they can get a strong reaction just by saying a word, that reaction reinforces the behavior.
Once a behavior has been reinforced, it is tough to get rid of. Eventually kids grow out of the potty mouth stage, but it can take a long time.
So, what can you do to hasten the process?
First, stay calm, matter-of-fact and straight-faced. Preschoolers are very tuned in to facial expressions, so even the slightest little smile or chuckle will give them enough encouragement to continue the behavior.
Ignore the language as much as possible. Sometimes just turning a deaf ear to the potty mouth is enough. If your child doesn’t get a reaction, he will eventually move on to another attention-getting strategy.
If your child is using potty words to call others names, as in “You’re a poo poo head”, appeal to her developing sense of empathy. Explain that name-calling hurts people’s feelings and that it is important to be kind.
Turn the situation into a game. Play together coming up with words that rhyme with the forbidden word – or words that start with the same sound. Eventually the word will lose its power and just be another word in their vocabularies.
Use humor to offer substitute words. When your child says a “bad” word, playfully give him a substitute. Say, “Oh, cauliflower!” or “Rumplestiltskins!” Remember that your child is learning to play with the sounds of language, so this kind of playful interaction with you can lead to more creative and fun word play.
Give your child substitute jokes. This is a great age to introduce “Knock Knock” jokes and riddles. Add joke and riddle books to your child’s library at home and read them together, sharing some good laughs and enjoying his growing sense of humor together.
Instead of forbidding bathroom words, tell your child that he may use those words in a particular place, such as the bathroom. This is not a time out or punishment, but just redirection to a place where the use of the words is acceptable. It will stop being so much fun when he is saying the words by himself in the bathroom.
And finally, make sure everyone in the family is on the same page. Talk about the strategies that you will use with all the adults and other kids in your child’s life. If your child is in a child care or early childhood education program, talk with his teachers. If everyone works together as a team to help your child get past this particular challenging behavior, you will see results fairly quickly.
But whatever you do, remember to have fun, stay calm and enjoy your preschool-age child. Trust that this stage will eventually pass and your child will be OK!