From “Toilet Talk” to Curse Words: How Forbidding Turns Curiosity into Weaponry

Q. We have a 4-year-old turning 5 next month, and we have a lot of toilet talk going on. We’ve tried ignoring it, explaining why it’s not okay and that it’s not okay to use in our house. Nothing seems to work. He just lays around and says: penis, boobies, vagina and other words. No swear words but typical toilet talk. Also he’ll poke me or others and say I can see your booby, bum bum etc. Also with his 1-year-old sister and dogs. Any advice would be appreciated as it’s starting to be such a theme and hard to help him know that it’s not okay to yell this and say it all the time.

A. Actually, it’s you who needs to know it is okay. Your son is right on target developmentally when it comes to “toilet talk.” Four and five-year-old’s have curiosity about their bodies, compare themselves to others, especially the opposite sex, and want to discover what bodies do and what makes them different. Because they are this age, they get silly about it all.

Unfortunately, when his words and silliness are met with embarrassment and annoyance, you send messages that his curiosity is not okay. And that body parts are bad or wrong.

When kids learn their behavior is wrong, it gets worse. In fact, your attempts to get your son to stop and to know it’s not right to say what he’s saying may be sending his behavior over the top.

Of course, it’s embarrassing to you when he spouts off language you never would, especially when others are around. But think about his developmental stage. He is just now (or whenever it started) noticing the difference in bodies. Life is a science lab for young children. You do not want to crush that curiosity with your embarrassment and fear of what this all means.

You can let him know there are places and times that are acceptable for his silliness, but it’s important for you to be his teacher first. I’m afraid the more he learns that his behavior evokes your impatience and anger, the more obnoxious he will get, and the longer this stage may last. 

But you can turn it around. For instance, when he pokes you and says, “I see your booby,” take this opportunity to teach him about the difference between male and female bodies. Give him the right words and information. “Yes, those are my breasts. You don’t have breasts, do you? That’s because only women have breasts for feeding babies. Do you remember when you got milk from my breasts, etc.” “Yes, you have a penis. I don’t have one of those. Do you know why? Because I have a vagina instead of a penis.”

When he points this out on his sister and a dog, remember the laboratory. “Isn’t it amazing that dogs have breasts and penises too? That’s because those body parts are important for making puppies as well as babies. Dogs feed their puppies with milk just like I fed you. We’re all born with certain body parts that are different for girls and boys.”

The more you normalize his words and satisfy his curiosity with concrete information, the sooner he will move out of his silliness. But expect silliness because it’s just plain fun for him and his friends who are discovering all this for the first time. 

silly parentAllow his potty talk at home. Answer him with facts when you can and ignore the silliness—unless you can get into it with him. Play the game of repeating words back and forth and just have fun. 

Then you can establish limits for outside of home. “Some people get offended when they hear those words so let’s keep it all at home.” When you give permission at home, children are much more able to limit themselves in public. But it sounds like he’s not allowed to do this anywhere. Therefore, he will try everywhere.

reprimanding a teenThis is also true for curse words as he gets older. The more you forbid a child saying anything, the more they will try it. When words are forbidden, they become weapons for kids who feel powerless, unheard, and unimportant. 

It is never a good idea to forbid. You can tell him how you feel about the words or behavior. “That is offensive to me. I don’t like to hear that.” When you own it as your problem, rather than “Don’t ever say that,” then you can talk about the fact that you don’t approve of using those words. You never did and you don’t want him to. When you don’t react but instead normalize it all, cooperation is more likely.

It seems crazy, I know, to allow cursing, but when you do, you are in a much better place to put parameters around the behavior. When you forbid, you are more likely to hear them directed at you when your child is angry with you.

silyl facesIf you really can’t stand it, and it is constant, after you do plenty of educative talk, tell him perfectly calmly that he can say whatever he wants in his room or the bathroom. Or when he gets obnoxious, try, “Do you want to talk about that part of your/my body more?” That might be enough to quiet him down! The more you react to his behavior, the more delight he will get from pushing your buttons. 

Also, this is the perfect time to tell him about how babies are made. Give him the facts. Read books to him that are factual but geared for children. Remember it’s all perfectly normal. A list of good books can be found here

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