"Hey, Daddy, guess what?" my 4-year-old said from his car seat one day, a beautiful fall afternoon in New England.
"What, Jack?" I asked over my shoulder.
"You have poop on your head."
Maybe it was the sudden incongruity, the gorgeous day, the innocent child, then out of nowhere . . . the heart of humor is discrepancy. Jack's mother and I suppressed our mirth.
"That's not very funny," I told him in a neutral tone, lest I encourage this jest.
There was a pause while Jack processed.
"It is to me," he said. And he was right.
What is it with kids and potty talk? Where does the fascination with things excretory come from? To some extent kids raised in plastic bubbles in the near-vacuum of outer space would probably make poop jokes, because they'd make poop, which is intrinsically taboo, and taboo is "older than the gods, [going] back to the prereligious age," according to Freud. And taboo is the raw material of humor because it's shocking, unexpected. Chimpanzees at the zoo, often described by scientists as "our closest living relatives," throw poop at the tourists and fall out of the trees, no doubt because they find it hysterically funny. It's a safe bet that Neanderthal man had some scatological variation on the old pie-in-the-face joke, though the only evidence we have of Neanderthal humor comes from Paleolithic pictographs found deep in a cave in France that anthropologists have translated as saying: "Cro-Magnon man sucks!" In the Old Testament, the Bible tells readers (and I paraphrase): "Get a spade, dig a hole, and bury your excreta because you never know when God might come to visit, and he doesn't want to see your doodoo" (Deuteronomy 23:12 – 14).
Parental Potty Mouth
Kids, of course, are seldom raised in plastic bubbles in the near-vacuum of outer space. More often they're raised in homes with parents, and parents, if you think about it, talk about poop all the time during the diaper and potty-training years, often forgetting that our babes are right there listening. We monitor the contents of our infants' diapers and discuss out loud the relationship of input to output and whether or not their digestive systems are successfully metabolizing blueberries or corn. Or we swap stories of diaper-changing calamities with other mommies and daddies during playdates. Even in the privacy of the changing station, who hasn't said, "Oh my God!" regarding some catastrophically overﬂowing diaper? Before they can talk, kids learn from us, directly, to associate potty talk with a certain level of excitement or arousal.
Then, once they start acquiring language skills, they learn to associate poop with something darker and more menacing (and this is the power of taboo). It's from what we say as much as what we don't say, when we suddenly switch and modify our language or employ euphemisms, right around the time we commence potty training. We ask them weird questions, like, "Do you need to go to the bathroom?" though we don't ask them, "Do you need to go to the kitchen?" when they're hungry, or "Do you need to go to the bedroom?" when they're sleepy. How can we expect them to know how to talk about poop — when it's appropriate, what words are acceptable and what words aren't — when all too often we struggle to address the subject directly ourselves?
Thus we get scenes like the morning I drove my son and two of his friends to soccer practice and suggested that, to fill the time, they play a game of I Spy With My Little Eye. They were more than happy to oblige.
"I spy with my little eye a man's butt," one quipped.
"I spy with my little eye a lady's butt and she has poop coming out of it!" the second riposted. It was a display of wit somewhat shy of Churchillian, but in the preschooler league he'd knocked one out of the park: howls of laughter from the backseat.
The full truth is that kids make poop jokes because poop jokes make kids laugh — and grown-ups too, despite our best efforts. I suppressed a guffaw when Jack told me I had poop on my head but I was not entirely successful, and I'm sure he was watching to see if his joke had any effect on me.
"Kids are hardwired to observe their parents," says Ann Stadtler, director of site development and training for the Brazelton Touchpoints Center in Boston. Stadtler consults on toilet-training programs at clinics around the country and is, in her spare time, an expert on potty humor; she's heard it all. "A baby as young as 4 months learns to smile or cough or frown to regain Mom's attention when his mother turns away," she says. "Once kids learn to speak, they learn which words make people react. "For some kids," Stadtler says, "potty talk is a nervous reaction. The 4- to 6-year-olds we see often have anxieties associated with the training process. Children are often conscious, at their schools or preschools, of which kids are potty trained and which aren't, and where they are relative to the norm. Some of the kids we see have had painful bowel movements, or constipation. The stinky-poopy jokes always come."
The Dark Side
Even kids who haven't experienced traumatic potty-related incidents have reason to regard excretion with apprehension. Once kids don't have diapers to fall back on, literally and figuratively, they are forced to rely on new motor skills involving muscles they can't locate or identify, while attending to cues they've never had to pay attention to before: the sphincter ani externus muscles responding to nerve endings in the rectal ampulla, to be precise. Or as my father used to say, "balmaments" — at least that's what I heard. Balmaments? Bowl moments? What?
"Poop comes from the dark side of the body," says Alice Sterling Honig, professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. "Kids can see where pee comes from, but no one can see where poop comes from. It's mysterious! They feel something turning inside but they don't know what it is. Some kids even believe there's an animal inside of them, moving and alive."
They are also, don't forget, learning how to use a strange new piece of furniture, the toilet, which in many ways is intimidating, the growling vortex of the bowl to nowhere, threatening to swallow them up ("What if I fall in?" is a common concern), with God only knows what monsters waiting on the other side. (And heaven forbid they shine a flashlight down the hole in a port-a-potty, affording the viewer a glimpse of hell of Hieronymus-Boschian proportions.) There are zippers that pinch, buttons that won't give, and always the chance they won't make it to the bathroom in time and will have an embarrassing accident and get yelled at, and we try not to yell, but sometimes it's hard to take a deep breath and say in a calm voice as we smile with compassion and benevolence, "Oh look, darling, you've just gotten feces all over the new sofa and now we have to throw it out. How about a hug?"
"When children resort to poop jokes," Honig says, "it's because we're the ones who give the word its greater meaning. When there's an accident, parents often make a drama out of it. Once kids learn the word poop has emotional intensity, they start using it, sometimes as a weapon. That's when they call each other 'poopy head.'"
We're also afraid they'll use these words in the wrong social circumstances. I remember once when my son and I were sitting on the couch watching TV, and Jack, noticing something in the air, put his face up close to mine and asked, "Daddy, did you poop?"
"No," I assured him. "Daddy didn't poop."
"Did you toot?"
"That was the dog."
But suppose we were at the dinner table with guests — suppose we were having Cardinal Richelieu over for chili and we didn't have a dog, and Jack said something like, "Was that your eminence?" (That could be the finest pun I've ever written.)
We can guide and coach them, but realistically, it's unfair to expect toddlers or preschoolers to consistently edit themselves. The part of a child's brain governing the ability to think about what they're saying before they say it (primarily the ventral fronto-striatial circuitry for anybody trying to follow along with a brain map) doesn't fully mature until adolescence. Once kids grow comfortable with all things fecal, the potty talk abates, as long as we don't encourage them. As Honig says, "Kids who know where poop comes from and what it's for usually don't use potty talk because for them the words have no mystery."
In our house, the potty talk stopped once provocation turned to genuine inquiry.
"Can you get arrested if you toot too much?" my son asked one day on our way to school.
"No," I replied, though I admit I haven't read the fine print of the Patriot Act.
"Why do toots smell?" he asked.
"They just do," I said. (Correct punch line: "So deaf people can enjoy them too.")
"So why do people toot?" he persisted.
I explained as best I could the digestive process and its various byproducts, and that grandpas and teachers and even some mommies toot, and that if you didn't toot, you'd probably get sick. He listened closely, thinking hard.
"So tooting is both a good thing and a bad thing," he said, adding it all up. "It's kind of a medium thing."
"That's right," I agreed. "It's kind of a medium thing."
"I tooted twice at school yesterday," he said, staring out the window. "It was awesome."
About the Author: Pete Nelson, would like to state for the record: I did not have, nor have I ever had, poop on my head. But you do.