What Language Should Parents Use During Potty Training?

Young boy on potty seat giving his mom a high five

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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?

Language for Waste

Whether to use the clinically correct terms for 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. They are a child, after all, and unless you plan to hide them away, they will eventually learn both the correct terms and some slang that might make you cringe.

Language for Body Parts

When talking about parts of the body, however, doctors strongly recommend using proper anatomical names. Just as you would not call an elbow or an eye a silly name, you should not call a penis a "wee wee."

Knowing the correct names for private parts can help protect children from sexual abuse and ensure that they get proper medical care. Helping your child learn about all the parts of their body also promotes a positive body image.

Use the Potty Language of Child Care

In her book The Girlfriend's Guide to Toddlers, Vicki Iovine sums it up nicely: "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 child care provider the words used at preschool and incorporate that language into your home repertoire as well.

Avoid Shaming

Children may be confused if you completely eliminate or discourage certain words or add negative emotion to words. This is why a penis should be called a penis, and a vagina a vagina.

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 spouse argue about it or you admonish or correct them in front of your child when they use these words.

Parents teach children to be embarrassed by or ashamed of their genitalia by the parent's own words and actions towards them. A parent's reluctance or unwillingness to use the correct terms sends a message to the child that this is not a subject the parent wants to discuss.

You want your child to feel comfortable talking about all aspects of using the bathroom with you. If they are experiencing pain or itching, for example, you need to know about it; your child may need medical care, and you'll both need to tell the doctor what is going on.

Potty Language Should Be Rated G

If the words you or your spouse are using wouldn't be used around a group of your peers (meaning other parents of toddlers), then you should definitely talk to your partner 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 preschool or a friend's house.

If your family has been using words that would carry an R-rating, stop 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. Modeling the appropriate language instead will go a long way toward changing the behavior.

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.