Why are kids so Obsessed with Poop Jokes?
Toilet humor can be a powerful tool for children, but there are ways to limit the potty talk.
The other morning, my son picked up his toy lizard, looked it squarely in the eye and threw down the worst insult his 5-year-old brain could summon: “You poopy butt,” he said to the lizard, and then, as if that wasn’t clear: “You stinky, poopy butt, glitter glob.”
This happened the same week he’d renamed his favorite They Might Be Giants song “Birdhouse in Your Butt” (you may know it as “Birdhouse in Your Soul”), and not long after his soccer coach vetoed “Diarrhea” as the team name.
For children of a certain age (4 – 6 years), toilet humor is a source of great delight. It’s heard in the classroom and on the playground, and unfortunately it makes regular appearances at the dinner table. And it can drive parents (and teachers) a little crazy, especially when uttered at the wrong time and place, like, say, taekwondo class. Picture, for example, a child bowing before entering the dojang and making fart noises. (True story!)
So why is bathroom humor so very appealing to kids? How should we understand these impulses? And how should we set limits around its use?
The appeal of a good poop joke
The primary reason that kids find off-color humor funny is simple: It gets a rise out of adults.
“First, children learn that words have meaning, and then they learn that certain words have special power,” said Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of the book “Playful Parenting.” Bodily functions, he said, have a special intensity, which extends to the words that describe them. There’s the strong sensory experience of using the bathroom, combined with “the hush-hush privacy and secrecy” that children see as adults react to the words.
“Children are always experimenting with power, and getting adults to laugh or be awkward, that’s a very powerful thing to a child,” he said. But there’s something else going on: Toilet humor can also be a powerful tool.
Humans often use humor to work through anxiety. Infants, who fear separation from their parents, laugh at games like peek-a-boo. But for children ages 3 to, say, 6, bathroom accidents are high on the list of things causing anxiety.
“I think we take it for granted as adults that we can make it to the bathroom on time, but kids don’t,” said Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of the book “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting” and creator of the website Aha! Parenting. Even if they’re potty trained, the possibility of an accident is very real to them — and probably a little scary. Humor allows them to gain control of that fear.
“If you can come into a situation and make a joke about something, it relieves tension,” said Doris Bergen, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of educational psychology from Miami University of Ohio, who has spent much of her career studying children’s play and humor development. “And it’s a socially acceptable thing to do.” It’s a universal coping mechanism: Comedians joke about the things that make us uncomfortable. They get out ahead of the embarrassment and discomfort, controlling it before it controls them. Kids are doing the same thing, even if they don’t realize it.
The changing stages of humor
To understand why the kid is so obsessed with bathroom humor, it may help to understand his relationship to humor itself.
In his 1905 book “Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious,” Freud described three stages of humor, which Dr. Bergen’s research has confirmed and linked to approximate ages: The first stage, “play,” occurs at ages 2 and 3; followed by “jesting” at 4 through 6; and “joking,” which begins at 6 or 7 and continues through adulthood.
“Jesting” involves playful exaggeration and absurdity. Toilet humor fits neatly into this category. But 4 is also, Dr. Bergen said, the age at which children begin to use humor “to convey many meanings, one of which is being able to say shocking or ‘incongruous’ things that cause laughter.”
The ability to understand the subtleties in jokes and humor becomes more sophisticated as the child develops. Still, Dr. Bergen wrote, “a ‘good’ sense of humor can convey a range of emotions, including highly negative ones that could never be expressed directly.”
For this reason, Dr. Cohen said it’s important to look underneath the surface of the words to the child’s needs. Does she need to feel powerful? Does she need to laugh? He suggests a game that addresses both.
It goes like this: You tell the child she can say “poop” all she wants, but she better not say “quagmire.” And when she inevitably says it, you playfully respond, “Oh no! I can’t believe you said that horrible word.” Eventually, when she starts getting bored, you let her in on another secret. “Quagmire’s not the really bad word. The really bad word is [insert totally innocuous word].”
She gets power from “doing the forbidden thing and getting a big reaction from you,” Dr. Cohen said. And the fake-mad reaction will make her laugh.
How to respond to potty talk
Scaling back the potty talk requires walking a fine line, Dr. Markham said. Parents and teachers should know that the behavior is age appropriate and not freak out about it, but still teach social rules.
“You have to teach a toddler not to drink out of a dog dish, and you have to teach a 6-year-old not to make fart jokes at the table,” she said, adding that kids especially must be taught not to use bathroom humor to taunt or make fun of others. She suggests approaching it with a relaxed attitude: “I know you think it’s funny, but we don’t talk about bathrooms at the table,” you might say.
Maya Coleman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who works with preschool and kindergarten-age children, has another suggestion, something she’s employed successfully with her own daughter and her young patients. She calls it “Butt Talk Time.”
It works like this: For five minutes every day, anything is game. Kids are encouraged to say anything, no matter how dirty or gross, and parents should support it with laughter and play. If the joke is funny, laugh. If your kid calls you a poopy face, you might feign shock and say, “What? I thought I was a delicate flower.” The effect is to reduce the emotional charge of the words.
“Often there are uncomfortable feelings there,” Dr. Coleman said. “And getting them to laugh really allows those tensions to dissipate so they feel less compelled to get them out at other times.” And here’s the best part. When bathroom humor comes up in socially unacceptable situations, this gives parents a place to redirect it.
“I’d say to my daughter, ‘Oops, we need to save that for Butt Talk Time,’” Dr. Coleman said. “We could mark it and pack it away. And it would allow her to deal with that urge.”
Not long ago, we tried it with our kids after breakfast. We set the timer for five minutes, and it went pretty much as you’d expect. Our son trotted out all the grossest words he knew, and we laughed and teased each other. We talked about various animals pooping and took turns making fart noises. And as the five minutes came to an end, he asked us to guess what he was thinking about. “Poop?” No. “Penguin poop?” No. “Butts?” “No, no, no,” he said, and then paused for effect: “Zombies.”
To sum up, we should all take comfort in the fact that bathroom humor is a healthy part of our young children’s development — and a natural part of their developing sense of humor. And the good news is this: It won’t last forever.
“Whatever the child is doing now that bothers you,” Dr. Markham said, “don’t worry. Wait a year, and they’ll be doing something else that bothers you.”
It may help to know that the delight your child takes in the grossest potty joke is a window into a bigger, more important truth: If you want to know what’s troubling your children or what’s on their mind, pay attention to what makes them laugh.
Jenny Marder is a science writer for NASA and a freelance journalist. She was formerly digital managing editor for the PBS NewsHour. You can find her on Twitter at @jennymarde