What Language Should Parents Use During Potty Training?

Both cutesy and technical language are fine

Mother potty training son
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During potty training sessions, parents often wonder which terms they should use with children. Is language such as bowel movement or urine appropriate, or should parents use more casual terms such as poop and pee? 

A reader wrote in with this very dilemma. She said:

"We're potty training our son and my husband and I have been talking about what to call different things. We haven't come to a consensus on what language to use.

He likes to say things like, 'Son, shake the pee pee off your wee wee.' It drives me crazy. I think he should be calling it a penis and refer to waste as urine and feces. Who's right?"

Technically Correct or Cute Potty Training Language Are Fine

Whether to use the clinically correct terms for body parts and waste is a highly personal decision and frequently involves one's own family history. People with parents who said "pee" and "poop" will likely use these terms with their children.

There's nothing wrong with either style. You won't be doing your child any injustice or harm by using childish words to describe these things. He is a child, after all, and unless you plan to hide him away, he will eventually learn both the correct terms and some slang that will make you absolutely cringe. Calling a penis a "wee wee" now will not affect that.

Likewise, there's plenty of room to introduce the correct terms now if that's what you'd like to do.

By giving him both words, you might think that you're likely to confuse him, but just the opposite is true. You're giving him lots of ways to express himself and plenty of vocabulary to do so when he's ready. Mom can use one type of potty language and dad can use another, or you can both mix it up.

Potty Language Shouldn't Be a Language of Shame

Confusion may occur, however, if you decide to completely eliminate or discourage certain words or add negative emotion to words. If you're extremely uncomfortable with the words your husband is using, you might want to consider why this is. For instance, do you find it embarrassing or feel some sense of shame over these words even though they are not curse words and would be appropriate to use in public? This attitude can easily be conveyed to your child, especially if you and your husband argue about it or you admonish or correct him in front of your child when he uses these words. You want your child to feel comfortable talking about all aspects of using the bathroom with you, and it might be easier and more comfortable for your son to say, "The poo poo hurts" rather than, "I'm having difficulty with my bowel movement." This is especially true if he doesn't have a strong command of his language skills yet.

Potty Language Should Be Rated G

If the words your husband is using are inappropriate, however, and wouldn't be used around a group of your peers (meaning other moms with toddlers or any reasonable person who has ever had a child), then you should definitely talk to your husband about using more appropriate terms.

There's nothing cute or developmentally appropriate about teaching a toddler to swear. And it's nearly impossible to teach a toddler that it's fine to say one word at home but not to use that same word at a restaurant. So, even if your husband wants to use some alternative potty lingo, make sure it's safe for use in public.

If your son has already been using words that would carry an R-rating, stop this immediately and do your best to ignore the behavior in your toddler. It can be tempting to make a big deal about banning the words or creating a scary label ("That's a bad word!"), but this almost always makes the problem worse and gives the offending word more allure to your toddler. Forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest in this case and modeling the appropriate language instead will go a long way toward changing the behavior.

The Potty Language of Child Care Is Universal

Another issue to consider is child care. When I was in charge of groups of toddlers, I didn't discourage the use of any words. Some children would say they wanted to go poop. Some would politely ask to use the bathroom. One girl called her bottom her "bum bum" and that always got a laugh out of the class since no one else called it that. On the playground and during playtime the children enjoyed practicing any new words they heard (potty-related or not), but I simply used the same language for everything. I always said "potty" instead of toilet, and I always said "pee" and "poop."

In her book "The Girlfriend's Guide to Toddlers," Vicki Iovine sums it up nicely, saying, "What good is it to teach your child to ask his daycare provider whether he can go to the bathroom to void (as I swear a girlfriend of mine was taught by a finicky mother) when all the other kids are being told it's time to go potty? It can't help but be useful for potty trainees to share a common potty language." Ask your own child care provider the words used at preschool and incorporate that language into your home repertoire as well.

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