Why your toddler finds bowel movements so hilarious
It’s official. All manner of jokes about poop, pee, people’s rear ends, as well as any variation on a fart sound, are joyfully hilarious to my four-year-old.
It started early last year. I’d pick him up from preschool and hear his group of friends in stitches over threats to flush each other down the toilet. Soon after, “poop on your head” was an acceptable response to at least 10 percent of questions we asked him. It seemed to be everywhere in our circle of family friends. At soccer practice, the coach would ask the kids to choose a superhero and inevitably someone would respond, “Poop man!” to the rest of the team’s delight.
I’ve watched parents shift uncomfortably at this bathroom fascination, redirecting with a statement like, “We only use those words on the potty,” or outright banning the talk altogether. Personally, I have made peace with the toilet comedy hour in our house — in fact, sometimes I even join in. Here’s why.
A child’s obsession with bodily functions is familiar to most parents. Babies and toddlers discover their nether regions on the changing table, two-year-olds boast emotions like pride or anxiety over their budding potty skills. Kids of all ages seem to get a kick out of pointing at, musing over, or flashing their privates from time to time. The body and the bathroom are natural curiosities.
And who starts, or at least encourages, this tendency? Parents do. You have to admit, we’re just as preoccupied. In the baby phase, we discuss the frequency, timing, and color of diaper contents, and show big, emotional reactions over remarkable nappy events. My new baby passes bowel movements that sound like her diaper contains a diesel engine, and we all chuckle — including my four-year-old. Just today, while changing her, I caught myself laughing and exclaiming, “Mom, bring the camera!” as I wiped a poop that spread from knees to shoulders and nearly into her hair. After all this fanfare (not to mention the fretting, praise, and high-fives over potty accomplishments), who can blame our kids for having heightened emotions when it comes to the bathroom?
Freud believed that jokes serve the purpose of releasing tension around all things sexual and aggressive and that they were legitimate ways of processing our feelings about our biological drives. Joking about the potty, a psychoanalyst might say, could be an expression of our children’s natural preoccupation with bowel movements, bladder elimination, and genitalia (in Freudian terms, the “anal” and “phallic” stages of development, spanning ages one to six). Most of us don’t read so far into potty humor, but still, it’s clear that the why, where, and how of digestion is naturally fascinating and mysterious to kids. I’ve had many anatomy conversations with my son perched on the toilet, where he puts forth hypotheses like, “The food I don’t need goes out in my pee. And sometimes down to my toes.” He’s trying to grasp a complex subject that requires abstract thinking — a tall order for a preschooler. Being inquisitive about his body and telling silly jokes about it seem like two parts of the same process.
The argument against potty humor is that it’s rude and immature. I agree. I don’t want my son sounding like a little sailor at school circle time. But my solution, as with other aspects of social etiquette, is to talk about context instead of forbidding. It’s not okay to make a poop joke at the dinner table, for example, or really anywhere in public when non-family members can hear. I point out that if you don’t know someone well or you get the feeling they’re uncomfortable with your words, you stop immediately. Just because, in the privacy of our home, our entire family blames their farts on our five-month-old, doesn’t mean I’m not keenly aware of teaching my son how to be polite in public. But to me, a nuanced approach is more helpful. It’s practice for my son to learn shades of grey instead of us simply painting rules in black and white.
As for it being immature, I also agree. But I hope I can always be childish myself. Laughing is therapeutic for people of all ages (it’s good for the heart and could even improve immune functioning). Research suggests our brains are hard-wired for humor and that it relieves anxiety and helps kids grow more resilient. In my mind, whatever gets you or your kid giggling can’t be bad. In fact, extended immaturity is a hallmark of human behavior; evolution gave us the ability to play, laugh, and be silly throughout childhood and across the lifespan. It’s a trait some believe makes us smarter and more successful. There’s something intrinsically funny about strange noises emanating from our bodies — maybe because it’s fundamentally human, it defies expectations, or it’s socially unacceptable. Whatever it is, the ability to find the crude stuff amusing applies to adults, not just kids (refer to Maya Rudolf’s mid-street squat in the Oscar-winning Bridesmaids as evidence). As far as I’m concerned, I find no reason to negatively judge my son for being tickled over potty humor. If I ever lose the ability to find fart noises funny, I’ll know I’m taking life too seriously.