At what point should a kid be able to wipe themselves? Louie CK said that if your kid is old enough to politely ask you to do it, then he or she is old enough to do it themselves. This sounds like a good plan, but my little guy, almost five, struggles with it.
The other day I noticed little brown streaks on the bathroom wall — signs, I thought, that the wood was in need of repainting. But on second look I discovered it was something else. When my wife confirmed my suspicions she brought our son over to see it himself. “What is this?” she asked.
He covered his face with his hands and softly moaned, “Poo.”
Yes, I know: there is a theme here. Last week I wrote about my son’s obsession with talking about poo and pee, and now he’s … well, he’s not only talking. When he’s bored on the toile,t he’s playing with the stuff, and his attempts at wiping his bottom have become rather creative, like he’s not so interested in cleaning up the mess as he is in making Jackson Pollock inspired fecal art on his butt cheeks. Or he uses his fingers like brushes and the roll of toilet paper as a canvas. Or the wall. Or even the underside of our sink. It’s really nasty!
Prior to this, I thought we were going in the right direction. He knows to stop and use the bathroom when he needs to, just as he knows how to hold it for a bit if we’re out and not near a toilet. And while he requires an adult to check the thoroughness of his wiping, he seemed to be doing a good job at a first pass. He’ll only get better, my wife and I thought. In a few months, he’ll be fully responsible for all of his bodily functions except puking! Won’t that be a glorious, clean day? But in the past month he’s back to occasionally soaking his underwear and making puddles on the floor, and this playing with poo thing is a new low.
Also, have I mentioned that he pulls his pants down to his ankles before heading off to use the bathroom? The first time he hobbled through the kitchen bare-bottomed, it was cute. Since then, he sometimes trips and falls flat on his face, and yet still he does it.
Oh, the long road to Potty Independence! This advance stage is no less messy than the earlier phases. If anything, I find it harder not to be disgusted and somewhat angered by having to clean up after him, because he’s so cognizant of what’s going on. “Don’t just stand there swaying back and forth,” my wife told him the other morning. “Hold yourself and aim for the bowl.”
“I’m making bubbles,” he explained. But he looked at her while saying it, and so sprayed the back of the toilet seat.
Like so many aspects of growing up, toilet etiquette and hygiene — because this isn’t potty training anymore, not really — isn’t a linear process. There are regressions and backslides, and some lessons, no matter how self-evident they seem to you, require repeating again and again. All a parent can do is take a deep breath before entering the bathroom and be patient. Try not to shame your child too much; it seems at this age that there’s a certain amount of shame already at work. He knows he’s not supposed to be playing with his poop! Instead, we gently but firmly remind him to do a better job, and then clean up the mess.
Louie’s quip aside, here is an aspect of parenting that I never hear about. It’s as if everyone’s kids, once they begin using the potty, do it fine all on their own. No one’s ever said to me — or posted a status update on Facebook — “If I have to wipe my son’s butt again I’m going to lose it,” or “My daughter is wiping-challenged,” or “My son painted a beautiful mural in excrement.” No, when I think of people having potty issues like this, I think of senior citizens unable to care for themselves, losing their independence, and, in a way, their dignity. I never considered the situation from the other angle; that bathroom hygiene isn’t innate, that it has to be modeled, taught, and perfected over time just like any other skill. That dignity is itself an attitude built up in the home by the family.
It’s profound how much we do for our children, and how much they require of us. The business of being a human, even at this most basic level, is complicated. So complicated that we need others to help us sort it out. My son requires my wife and I to do this for him, and that’s a beautiful responsibility, really, one that deals with the mysterious workings of our body and the equally baffling taboos of our society. It happens to also be a stinky, somewhat unpleasant responsibility at times. It’s one best handled with a good sense of humor, but as much as I might roll my eyes and crinkle my nose, it’s not one I’d quickly trade.