Watch Your Potty Mouth

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Memories of my dad losing his temper are surprisingly endearing. “Nuts, nuts, NUTS!” he’d growl. You know he wanted to say a bunch of other things.  These mini explosions were usually because one of his four daughters borrowed something and “forgot” to return it…again (and now I feel his pain). I hated knowing Dad was upset, especially when I was the culprit, but looking back I’m touched by his effort to keep his expletives G-rated.

But I’m not here to share the obvious – we all know we should try to curb our language in front of the kids.  What might not be as apparent is the need for respect surrounding toilet learning and diapering. Instead of referring to diapers as ‘dirty’ or ‘stinky’, I’m suggesting we use words like ‘wet’ or ‘full’ (or any other good ideas you might have) and offer children a change to diapers that are ‘dry’ or ‘fresh’.

What’s the big deal?  Here’s why these seemingly minor child care details matter:

Self-worth, body image

We all want to raise a self-confident child with a healthy body image, but we might not see the foundational connection between self-worth and our child’s perception of her bodily functions. Imagine that in your most impressionable years, your beloved parents and care-givers tell you that natural parts of you are dirty and smelly.

Respect – it’s in the details

Respect for our youngest children is not a running theme in my blog — it is my blog.  The purpose of everything I write is to provide a deeper understanding of what it means to respect children from the moment they are born. For me, personally, and for the many parents I have worked with, the major “Aha’s” come when we grasp the minor details– like the way we talk about wet diapers.

If we are open to shifting our vision to one of respect and willing to incorporate the details, we soon find it impossible to treat children any other way.  There’s no turning back.

Respect means treating babies as we would like to be treated. Not as adults, but with an equal measure of thoughtfulness, empathy and courtesy.  It’s about making the extra effort to see from our child’s point of view. And not just when it’s convenient — all the time.  Babies need respect and consideration even more than we do because they are preverbal (so there is much they can’t express to us) and at their most sensitive stage of life.

Can you imagine announcing to your grandmother, “Pee-ew! I think I smell a dirty diaper,” and then yanking at the back of her pants to take a look without a word of warning?  Not so cool.  If we must refer to a smell, perhaps we could call it “strong” instead.  Better yet, we could hold our breath and calmly, privately find a way to tell our baby that we will check her diaper, being as discreet as we would at tea with the Queen.

Privacy, dignity

And speaking of the Queen, would we publish photos of her (or any adult) on the loo in order to illustrate an article about toilet training or EC? We consider these situations private, but we deem it acceptable to share our children’s personal moments with the world.  We even see this as cute. Take it from someone who knows – when our kids turn 12 or 13, they are not going to appreciate this type of early exposure, in perpetuity on the internet no less.

Should we feel guilty and defensive if we have done these things? No. We certainly can’t be blamed for missing what society as a whole is in the dark about. But each of us has the power to make simple adjustments in the best interests of our children and, while we’re at it, be models and proponents of respect, which might eventually lead to the refreshing change babies need most…a world in which dignity for humans of all ages is a “given”.



(Photo by ~maja*majika~ on Flickr)



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. okay ~ this has come at a good time for me ~ I work at a preschool ~ not a toddler center ~ I don’t really want to change diapers ~ as it turns out we do have a few under 3 year olds that are still in pull ups ~ we have a boy that gives us two full diaper loads a day ~ I don’t like it ~ but as you say it is a natural bodily function and I will approach it as such ~
    I do appreciate your articles !

  2. This is great, Janet! I totally agree about respecting bodily functions. Good point about the privacy issue, too. With social media, the lines seem to be blurring. On the one hand, parents want to share their experiences with their friends. But on the other hand, is it fair to share their CHILDRENS’ private experiences?

  3. i agree about the diaper respect and i think ive seen you write about not being disgusted with diaper changes before. but i think there is also a value in being open to discussing the smell. this may sound gross to some or many (and pre-child i had a weak stomach about gross things too) but my daughter and i are very open about bodily functions. we talk about the smell of her diaper, she likes to see her poops in the diaper afterward, there was even a time when she wanted to identify the food bits in there. we talk about how everyones poop smells and is dirty (in the sanitary/hygienic/need-to-wash-your-hands kind of way). she comes to the bathroom and watches me use the toilet everyday (her choice, not mine). she even likes to identify animal poop outside. but i feel like in this way we are hitting at the “dirty truth” (if you will) about bodily functions while not surrounding the topic with shame. as the book says “everybody poops”. i know this view is not one everyone can be comfortable with (i myself end up breathing out of my mouth from the smell while we have these discussions) but i think it gets at the same message you are trying to deliver.

    1. Interesting, Alyce! You and your daughter definitely seem to have a healthy perception of bodily functions. My ten year old son continues to be quite fascinated with the subject. 🙂

      1. I’d also like to add that if one feels it necessary to use words like “dirty” or “smelly”, it is safest to wait until children are old enough to have a detailed conversation about those things, so that we can be sure they are not identifying with the words.

  4. Excellent article. I think you should do one on facebook. We are in an interesting period in history with social media, and it seems to me like our kids are the starring role in our personal reality shows.

  5. Diane Fleming says:

    Janet, Read your article and I really feel the need to respond. I’m “Grandma” to 2 beautiful little girls. I realize the necessity for the privacy of their bodily functions, but I strongly disagree that they shouldn’t know that these functions are “normal”, but nonetheless are still “smelly and dirty”. How else will they know to wash their hands before making lunch (if never told)and to keep their “functions” in the bathroom in order to maintain their privacy? Let’s remember that sending “mixed signals” is far more harmful if our children growup thinking it’s acceptable and harmless behavior to release bodily functions anywhere in public! I do strongly agree that photos of children on the potty or bare-bottomed should not be plastered on facebook. These photos are viewed by many and though they are cute to parents, are definately not appropriate for publication. These “babies” will soon be adults and should not be subjected to our ignorant forms of laughter.

    1. Hi Diane! Yes, I agree that they should know that their functions are normal, healthy, natural — not unpleasant things. Young children aren’t adept at compartmentalizing, so if we tell them that parts of them are dirty and smelly, they can believe themselves to be dirty and smelly. This just isn’t worth the risk, in my opinion, especially when it is so simple to exchange a couple of words for more respectful ones. I have never found it a problem to ask children to wash hands after they use the toilet…that’s just what we do…

  6. I also agree that taking pictures of toddlers or babies on the potty while potty learning or ECing is not that appropriate, I understand parents want to share and feel proud but I don’t feel it protects the dignity of the child, I also gained perspective from my friends with no children, to their eyes it looks overdone to begin with and I feel is a very intimate private moment. I agree with not using terms such as “stinky” smelly or going overboard announcing it to everyone, is really not necessary to make the point across that a diaper change is needed, I like the terms wet and dry but I am not sure about full diaper, do you still consider appropriate stating that the diaper itself is dirty or soiled? Something like: “Your diaper is soiled let’s change it”, I feel it is still respectful but more real, technically speaking a diaper can be soiled but not full and still needs to be changed, just like we need to feel cleaner after a bath or shower. Thoughts?

    1. Hmmm… I think I’d rather say you had a BM (or poop, whatever) in your diaper, so we will change to a fresh one. A “dirty diaper” still means dirt came out of the child. I’m certainly open to hearing other points of view, though.

      1. Thanks Janet, I like those suggestions, I will have to ponder more on avoiding using the term “dirty”.

  7. My toddlers laugh when I hold my nose and say, “Pea U (can’t think of the correct sp)! I smell piggy poop!” They know I am teasing. Other than that I handle this with respect, being matter of fact about bodily functions & stressing the need to change the diaper.

  8. I totally agree with you about not using negative vocabulary, facial expressions, or tone of voice around toileting. However, I’ve never felt that the word “dirty” was a bad word. It’s just a descriptor – dirt is awesome! Dirt is fun to play in and is a natural part of the world. I don’t think that the word has any negative connotations in and of itself; I think the problem starts when people say it with a disapproving or disrespectful manner. After all, you can use the most polite words known to man in a disrespectful way simply by the tone of voice you say them in.

    1. Hmmm… Interesting, Megan. I certainly agree with you about tone and facial expressions. I suppose “dirty” could be presented positively… You’ve got me thinking! The thing is, she knows this isn’t the same as the dirt that’s outside. I think I might be confused if my mom said that dirt came out of me.

      1. We’ve presented “poop” as the “leftovers” after your body takes all of the energy out of your food. Everything that eats has to poop!

        By that same token, when we are done eating all the vegetables from the plants we put them in a composter to turn them into dirt. The composter takes the plants and turns them into dirt that the new plants can use for energy.

        So, we ended up presenting poop as very similar to dirt…

        Now… if we could get past “if i was a plant I would eat my own poop dirt.” Oops.

        1. Sounds good, Claire! As long as you’re not offering leftovers for dinner… could be confusing… 😉

  9. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I’m curious how to convey to my 8 month old that she must immediately touch herself when I remove the diaper (because she does, every time), especially when it’s full of poop, and yet do this in a way that doesn’t leave her feeling like her parts are not to be touched, ever. Any suggestions? Every time I say “No hands” and remove her hand (which is what I say when she tries to put her hands in her mouth while I’m feeding her).

    1. Whoops, I meant “must NOT immediately touch herself.” That’s what happens when you type with an 8 month old on your lap.

      1. Hi Jamie! “No hands” isn’t really telling her anything… Imagining myself in her booties, I’m confused. I think it is much more respectful and helpful to say something honest like, “I am going to stop you from touching yourself because I don’t want you to get poop on your hands. After I wipe, you can touch there.” Or “I know you want to touch that right now, but I can’t let you until you are dry.”

        I know some people argue that babies can’t understand this…but, believe me, they can! You’ll be amazed. Infants absorb language very quickly when we speak to them honestly and respectfully. Communicating your thoughts with your daughter this way will remind you that she’s a whole person.

        Also, don’t forget to ask to encourage her to participate in diaper changes as much as possible. For example, let’s say she touches herself before you can stop her…”Oh, you got a little poop on your hand… Would you please hold out your hand and help me wipe it?”

  10. I agree. I asked my husband to not make the exaggerated comments and reactions to our daughter about the smell, etc. of her diaper. I do imagine — what if you were an elderly adult needing help with toileting and the person helping you was making such comments? It would be very embarrassing and undignified.

    I do say to our daughter: “let’s take this wet diaper off and put a fresh one on.”

    1. Exactly, Jamie! We treat our most impressionable children as if what we say doesn’t matter. I believe it does.

  11. I loved this article and I’m glad you’ve addressed this subject. I work at a University child development center and we talk with our college students about being respectful of bodily functions all the time. And, I firmly believe that children DO internalize the words “dirty” and “stinky” in a negative way. One of our 2 year olds had learned to use the potty when he needed to urinate, but was really struggling with using the potty for his BM’s at school (although he did use it at home. He struggled for weeks and finally, when we asked him about why he wasn’t wanting to use the potty for his BM’s, he said, “That’s stinky. I have spray at my house.” (We talked to Mom and she said she always asked him to spray after a BM because “he made the restroom stink”). When we realized that he was embarassed about the smell of his BM’s to the point of not using the toilet, it really solidified how much children internalize the words we use.

    –Again, great article!! 🙂

    1. This story is enlightening, Analisa. Thank you for sharing!

  12. Another beautiful post, Janet. I always say to the families whose children I care for, that I take pride in the fact that their children trust me enough to let me care for them in this way.

    And yes, all my senses are in full working order. 😉

    A few years ago there was a child at my previous preschool who had very strong-ly scented, questionably healthy bm. Her mother said she hadn’t noticed because the child hadn’t voided soild waste at home in weeks! This was even more odd because she was only in the 3-day per week program! It turns out, her father had nicknamed this 3 year old girl “Stinky” and she became embarrassed to a point where she’d hold it until she could have a bm in peace at preschool.

    After a conference with her parents, their understanding [and never meaning any harm to begin with], after a few extended olive branches she was able to pass solid waste at home confidently. The trick? She was in the bath one day when papa came in and pooped on the toilet. ha! Once she fully knew that papa made the same strong scent too, she was more at ease. I am so proud of them!

    1. Wow! Amazing story, Elle. Thanks so much for sharing. People like you give me tons of hope!

  13. We are just wrapping up potty learning with our daughter and we have talked about poop A LOT. One thing that really helped her understand that it’s not that poop is dirty per se, was talking about the cheerful little bacteria that help us digest. They are very happy in the intestine, but in the mouth or stomach they make us sick. Short version of a conversation that is still going on months later, but it gave us a way to talk about keeping our hands and such clean of poop without poop being bad. And of course, EVERYBODY POOPS. Lots of talk about who poops? YOU poop. Grandma poops? Grandma poops. Dogs poop? Dogs poop! Forever and a day, but that’s learning. 🙂

  14. These comments are as great as the article! When it’s time for a diaper change around here we say it’s ‘new’ diaper time or I ask, ‘Would you like a new diaper?’ I figure if I spill something on my shirt, which happens more than I like, I say I’m going to change into a new shirt. The same vocabulary is used with my son when we need to change his diaper or clothes for whatever reason. And I’m so glad I’m not the only parent who detests seeing photos of toddlers on their potties. If I won’t post a photo of my husband or myself doing something on Facebook, then I’m not posting a photo of my son doing it. Thanks for a great article.

  15. Janet- Here’s my question. I understand how this plays out with babies, but how do you communicate the need for cleanliness to a toddler who may pee on the floor on occasion or run from the bathroom without wiping their tush after pooping or without washing hands? How do you convey the message that human waste makes people sick if it’s spread around the house without making it “dirty” or “gross”? I’m invested in what language you would use? Thanks!

  16. I agree with the sentiment but don’t agree with not calling a spade a spade. Stinky is stinky. I feel trying to hide a description of something could lead to them feeling it’s something that they should be embarrassed by. Or feel they have to hide. I do as you say and try not to embarrass the kids with the description of the nappy, but I call a spade a spade and give the impression thier stink is acceptable and welcome to me. I feel you should be comfortable about your body functions around those closest to you. I ask if my daughter has poos for me in the same way I’d ask if she has a present for me. And I thank her like I’m some weirdo who loves pooey nappies (lol). I like to be an easy going and silly fun mum as often as possible, and so that’s easy to work in.

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