Penis Penis Fart Fart
Is It Bad That My Kid's Potty Mouth Doesn't Bother Me?
I'm not interested in pretending that running around the house yelling “penis penis fart fart” is anything other than totally funny.
My 4-year-old, Griffin, was a little over 2 in March of 2020 — but socially, he is totally a pandemic baby. The poor kid outgrew parallel play at a time when he was stuck at home with me as his lone playmate. And that first summer, he was ready to potty train, meaning the word “poop” came into our lives in a next-level way.
When he went to school for the first time last year, his poop humor only picked up speed. Now that he's 4 and body words dominate the conversation — Fireman Sam became Fireman Poop, various songs have some (or all) words swapped for “butt” or “poop” or “fart” or “vulva.” He has seized upon one of life’s simple pleasures, and I refuse to keep it from him.
Even his 1-year-old sister laughs when she passes gas. As she should — what a funny sound, and how much better you must feel now! I’m not interested in pretending that running around the house yelling “penis penis fart fart” is anything other than totally funny.
Is my kid happy? Is the thing that’s making him happy not hurting anyone? OK, great.
Until recently, I’d been parenting under the impression that societal tip-toeing around body words had been left firmly behind us in the early ’90s, when Everybody Poops became a bestseller. But, lately, as the world opens up, it’s become clear that, however baffling I find it to be, other families are really strict about this.
I’m not interested in pretending that running around the house yelling “penis penis fart fart” is anything other than totally funny.
It’s widely known (or so I assumed) that preschool kids’ particular affection for poop jokes — likely all tangled up in development and releasing anxiety about their new, imperfect bladder and bowel control skills — is universal and developmentally appropriate. But honestly, do most adults outgrow giggling at farts? Maybe I’m just arrested in my development, but farts are hilarious to me and I’m 38. It seems dishonest to tell our kids not to make fart and poop jokes when we’re still giggling at them in adulthood.
So, at a recent playdate when a friends’ mom asked Griffin not to say “fart” in front of her daughter — or any “potty words,” as she calls them — I had a big knee-jerk reaction, and not a positive one. The boundary and its firmness caught both Griffin and I off guard. We wobbled through the rest of the playdate and came home confused. I was spinning. Isn’t this their family’s problem? Why is their family’s discomfort with the word “poop” more important or valid than my kids’ comfort with it? The hothead in me was not cool with another parent policing my kids’ language, especially in our own backyard.
Even the popular phrase “potty words” feels indicative of a gingerly relationship to body words and is frankly obnoxious to me. While “potty training” is how most of us talk about teaching our kids to poop in the toilet rather than a diaper, even the American Academy of Pediatrics prefers the more direct phrase “toilet training.”
Humor is a core value of our family life. Life is hard. Farts are funny. It’s not a fair trade off, but it’s what we’ve got. It seems to me that cultivating an ability to laugh at the darker or grosser elements will help my kids when life is dark or gross. While I’m not an expert, this approach is time-tested. People have been making fart jokes since the beginning of time — bawdy body humor is pervasive in Shakespeare’s plays and the oldest known fart joke officially dates back to 1900 B.C.
That said, Griffin’s knack for making his friends laugh with poop jokes produced as spontaneously as a fart itself had become an issue we couldn’t ignore. A few days later, we were playing with another friend at a park. When the friend’s mom overheard “butt” and “fart,” she swept in with a “if I hear that word one more time, we’re leaving.” Sure enough, she heard it one more time, and they left, and left me with a sad and confused kid.
At school, if the teachers hear Griffin using his beloved words, he doesn’t get in trouble, but they simply ask if he has to go to the bathroom. When he complained to me about the potty words rules at school — a few days after the other two “potty words” incidents — I had no knee jerk. School is school, I said, and you’ve got to follow the rules. It’s different from home, and it’s important to listen to your teachers.
The lesson was in the mess, for Griffin and for me.
It wasn’t until the words tumbled out of my mouth that I began to see the issue for what it was: The experience of my child encountering a world beyond our home for the first time. Our rules are not everyone’s rules. At school, at least, I knew what he’d need to do. I realized he was going to have to ixnay on the ottypay ordsway for the common good, to keep the peace and be a good citizen of his school.
But in one-on-one situations with other families, I was less certain about what to do. If Griffin and a friend have an entire friendship based on a shared affection for fart jokes — and, in my observation, many of his friendships are based in poop humor — a playdate largely spent with the other mom saying that she doesn’t like to hear those words just felt off. Then again, our comfort had caused other people’s discomfort, not once but twice.
After a few weeks of looping on this one, I went to Carla Naumburg, a licensed independent clinical social worker with a doctorate in clinical social work who is perhaps best known for her book How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids for some expert insight. “I guess what I’m asking is who is right?” As I spoke the words out loud, I knew the answer.
“First of all, different families get to make different rules, right? That’s just a lesson that our kids need to learn for life,” Naumburg reminded me. “It may be that, you know, you have to say to your son, ‘When you’re going to play with this kid, I need you to remember that we don’t use potty talk.’ He might say, ‘I don’t want to play with them because I can’t say “poop.’” And that’s fine. That’s a choice that’s totally OK.” It was so obvious and so not obvious. A lesson for a 4-year-old — and his 38-year-old mother — in holding space for difference, and others’ comfort levels, without losing your own values in the process.
Sending my kid back into the world in this post-pandemic moment has been a wonderful education in the murkiness that is life in society.
“Part of you sending your kid out into the world is that they’re going to be exposed to things that you might not like,” Naumburg reminds me. “For me, this is all grist for the mill.” Everything I was so uncertain about — who was right? Can this other mother tell my kid what to say and what not to say? — was indeed unclear. Of course, no one was right, and everyone was right. And that’s the important conversation. The lesson was in the mess, for Griffin and for me.
Sending my kid back into the world in this post-pandemic, back-to-school re-entry moment has been a wonderful education in the murkiness that is life in society. It has allowed us to remember that our boundaries and the things we say yes to and the things we say no to in our home will not perfectly align with the world beyond its walls. Being in a society means learning to get along and be together in a way that makes the most people the most comfortable most of the time. It’s not just the back-to-schoolers — we are all relearning this right now.
So, we’re working on it. At home, Griffin says poop and pee and fart and we lure him into doing stuff he doesn’t want to do with promises of viewings of Tom Green’s “Bum Bum Song” and Mr. Hankey. We talk openly about poop and butts and what’s going on with our bodies. We laugh when he makes a funny fart joke.
But, Griffin also has to live in the world, and I don’t want him to lose friendships over his love of the word “fart.” As long as no one is being hurt — though it does seem to be physically painful for him to not say “fart” sometimes — we will try to follow other families’ rules when we spend time with them. Conflicts and differences will naturally arise. We’ll talk about them. We’ll ask Griffin what he wants to do, and we’ll weigh in with what we think might be a good way to handle these differences. I’m working to be more open to that — less knee jerk, more middle ground.
Whenever I push on a parenting experience — like teaching my child the finer points of timing his fart jokes so that no one gets in trouble — I realize they all fall under the same umbrella of just figuring out what the heck we’re supposed to be doing as parents in the world. Whatever the topic, the answer always seems to be about making space for things to be complex, a little bit different for everyone. Parenting is not black and white. It’d be a lot easier if it were. It’s an extremely messy, foggy sort of gray. Or maybe, in this case, poopy brown.
Carla Naumburg, a licensed independent clinical social worker with a doctorate in clinical social work and author of How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids and You are Not a Sh*tty Parent.