Recently, my fellow Babble blogger Rebecca Odes posed an interesting question: When Can a Kid Go to the Bathroom Alone? It’s a good question and one that I think about more often than I’d like. Her post was inspired by a letter written to Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids.
Free-Range Kids is a blog that rails against the tendency of modern parents to be over-protective. Ms. Skenazy, a fine writer, is a proponent of Free-Range Parenting, which is pretty much the opposite of so-called “Helicopter Parenting.” Basically, the idea is that it’s good to give kids independence and let them grow to be self-reliant individuals. This is all well and good, and I’m all about giving kids whatever level of responsibility and independence is appropriate for that particular child.
I wouldn’t call myself a free-range parent, though. If I had to pin down my personal parenting theory, I’d say it’s “do the best you can for each individual child while getting through the day without losing your mind.”
In the letter, a mother who signs off as “Stunned & Slightly Sickened” relays a tale of seeing a junior high-aged boy enter a public ladies’ restroom with his mother. The boy had his coat up around his head. At one point, while the boy is in the stall, the mother “was yelling in a panicked voice, ‘You’ll be okay, Jordan, I’m right here!’” Apparently a female security guard approached the mother, who “just lit into her about how she was doing this and how ‘these are the times in which we live.’”
In response, Ms. Skenazy writes, in part:
I urge everyone to do this: Take the leap. LET your kids do something they know they’re ready for that, in your heart of hearts, you suspect they’re ready for, too. When you gather the courage to let go JUST ONCE, the results can change you forever — because your child changes forever. Fear is replaced by pride and joy. Pretty heady! (And that’s not just a bathroom pun.)
Many, many readers left comments to the effect that taking your “too old” son into the ladies’ room with you is a complete no-no. Here are a few choice responses:
- EWWWWWW!!! I don’t want your teenage son in the ladies’ room!
- I don’t understand- Should the rest of us be willing to risk an adolescent male in the women’s room where there are likely to be young girls?
- One WOULD think that sauce for the goose would be sauce for the gander, but this is her precious little snowflake we’re talking about. Every other person on the planet is a potential rape suspect, but not HER little angel.
- *rolleyes* please. i don’t even take my 8-ish son to the bathroom with me. and if he is the one that has to go? he goes in the men’s room and I wait outside.
- I CANNOT believe this! I have never seen this, but I would say something to that mom about how gross it was for ME to have to share a bathroom with her random son. Triple yuck!
- This is just gross.
I deal with these kind of judgments every day. Two of my four kids have Asperger Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder. They are both emotionally and socially younger than they really are, and they both have a heaping helping of additional challenges: my daughter, who is 11, has a fine motor skill delay, ADHD, OCD, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
You can’t see any of that by looking at her. What might you see? A girl who looks “too old” to be playing with the toys in the waiting room, who carries a rubber ducky around with her. I wish you could see what I see: a beautiful, brilliant girl who has successfully come up with non-harmful ways to deal with her own stress.
My son, who is almost seven, is socially and emotionally about four years old. Unless he is in the midst of a meltdown or actively flapping/rocking/spinning, he looks like every other boy his age. He is, at long last, toilet trained, but he is not fully independent in the bathroom. He is also overwhelmed by loud noises — such as the sounds made by automatic flush toilets, high-pressure hand dryers, and voices echoing off ceramic tile walls in a crowded bathroom.
Whenever possible, we use family restrooms and family locker rooms, but not every place has those. What are we supposed to do?
One commenter wrote, “While I understand that young adults with special needs, may need adult assistance, I also understand that everyone else has the right to their comfort. I am sorry for those that feel I am being cold or insensitive, but your child/teen/young adult with special needs is your responsibility, not the other dozen people in the restroom. Personally I think you are wrong for using an open restroom like that, when you can easily find a family one, or use one at a coffee shop, or restaurant, where you can have the room to yourself. Yes we as a society need to make allowances for those with special needs, but those with special needs also need to have respect for the rest of us, and realize that though they have special needs, it does not in fact make them special.”
No, I cannot “easily” find a family restroom, actually. And of course my kid is my responsibility. But I didn’t exactly ask you to wipe him for me, did I? As uncomfortable as this may make some people, people with special needs have the right to enjoy public places, even if they don’t have a family restroom. We have this thing called the Americans with Disabilities Act.
None of this may have been the case with the boy in the letter to Ms. Skenazy, but it’s important to remember that not all disabilities are visually apparent. We don’t know the back story on this family. Off the top of my head, I can think of several reasons why a 12- or 13-year-old boy might not be capable of using a public restroom by himself: intellectual disability, crippling anxiety, sensory integration dysfunction, autism spectrum disorder.
When I left a comment to that effect, some readers pointed out that the woman could have simply told the security guard if that was the situation, and that’s true. They noted the “panicked voice” that the mom used when reassuring her son that she was there.
Yeah, panicked voices don’t help kids much. On the other hand, take a walk in my shoes for one single, solitary trip to a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, herding four kids into a noisy restroom, and see if a wee bit of an edge doesn’t creep into your voice. Was she expressing panic? Or was she desperately hoping to avoid a public meltdown from her “too old” son?
My point is, we don’t know. When you see a kid who seems to be too old for whatever: playing with a certain toy, riding a bike with training wheels, having “tantrums,” not politely shaking hands, using a public restroom with a parent, you don’t know. And since these things do not actually affect you personally one bit, it would be tremendously awesome if you could keep your eye rolling to yourself.
My son is working really, really hard on developing more self-help skills and independence. He knows that he’s delayed on things like this, and he’s embarrassed by it. He’s trying so hard to be able to do things on his own. We’re getting there, and I am immensely proud of him. Some things just take him a little longer than they would for typically developing kids.
PLEASE think twice before judging parents when you don’t know what’s going on. My son may be autistic, but he can certainly hear and understand snarky comments people make around him. Right now, he’s still young enough that we’re not usually approached about the restroom issue. Unfortunately, though, we’ve had our share of comments on this and a host of other topics: “He’s too big to be carried,” is a favorite of people who care deeply yet inexplicably if my husband or I carry our son. “Isn’t he a little old for Pull-Ups?” was one that was heard more than once.
Was this mom keeping her kid insanely over-protected? I don’t know and I don’t care. If we agree with Free-Range Parenting that the world is a safer place than the daily news would have us believe, why exactly is it so upsetting to have a 13-year-old boy the in the ladies’ room?
Of course it’s important to teach our children to be independent. The thing is, there is no one right age for any milestone. Even when you look at child development books, there is a range. If your kid doesn’t walk at exactly 12 months, you haven’t failed as a parent.
What age is the right age for a child to walk to school alone? What age is the right age to use a public bathroom alone? To walk home from school to an empty house? To go to the mall with friends? I’d hazard that it just depends on the kid. It’s not like we can say, “oh, when you’re [whatever age], you must be able to [do this thing].” Real life, child development, and parenting just aren’t that cut and dried.
Judging is inherent to parenting. We all see parents making choices, and then we judge them. Not necessarily in a bad way: it’s more of a thought process: would I do that? It’s okay. We’re supposed to evaluate our parenting. We should be conscious and thoughtful of the decisions we make. It’s perfectly reasonable to see what another family does and think, “that wouldn’t work for us.” But when you see parents doing something differently than you, instead of assuming the worst (crappy parenting), why not try assuming the best (they’re doing the best they can for that particular child)?
Please, please be kind when you see kids that are “too old” to be doing something. They may actually be functioning “just right” under the circumstances.
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