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col At 5, bathroom humor is a way of testing society's limits

Q: Our five-year-old son and his best friend from preschool seem to be obsessed with bathroom humor. They think it's hilarious just to say words like "butt" or "fart" or "pee-pee" and sometimes encourage each other to say them in front of adults (even strangers) just to get a reaction. What's the best way to put a lid on this tiresome behavior? Is it anything to worry about?

A: As tiresome as this behavior is for parents, it is not at all unusual for children this age. At four or five, children become very interested in their bodies and bodily functions. They learn that some body parts are private, and that when they talk about those parts (or sometimes even display them), adults and older children may laugh or become embarrassed.

Although preschool children have not quite learned to be embarrassed themselves, they are trying to figure out the rules and limits of what is acceptable to others. To determine what those limits are, they find all kinds of ways to test them (like seeing how many bathroom words they can say before mom and dad lose their cool).

As you are observing, young children's notions of humor are different from adults'. In a five year-old's mind, bathroom talk probably really is hilarious. Young children are not sophisticated enough to understand more subtle or complex humor.

And at any age, surprise -- and even embarrassment -- are typical elements of humor. Kids get both reactions when they shout "poop" to the stranger who is walking by.

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All in all, your son's behavior is nothing to worry about. In time, he probably will outgrow it even if you don't intervene. Nonetheless, there are a few things you can do to put a lid on it, as you say, and at the same time teach your son important lessons about socially appropriate behavior. If you can persuade his friend's parents to use the same approach, you're likely to be even more effective.

The first and simplest step is to avoid overreacting to his attempts at humor. If he doesn't get a reaction from you, potty talk will lose much of its appeal. If there are older children in your household, it will be important to get them to join you in this approach.

In public, set clear limits on what's not acceptable and explain how it affects others. For example, say firmly and matter-of-factly, "It's not OK to say those words at the store. People are embarrassed and don't like to be around you when you talk that way."

Although you want your son to cut out the bathroom humor, it's important to balance those limits with a clear message that his body and its functions are nothing to be ashamed of. The best way to send that message is to answer any questions he has about his body in a straightforward way, use accurate names for body parts, and let him know, without embarrassment, that bodily functions are a natural part of everyone's life.

Finally, because humor is a fun and important part of life, help your son and his friend find other ways to be funny. (This follows a good general rule of child rearing: Give a child a substitute for the behavior you want him to stop.) For example, it's fun for preschoolers to make up silly words, rhyme, or tell simple riddles.

Of course, when your son tells you the same "knock-knock" joke for the 10th time in one day, you may find that preschool humor still wears a bit thin!

Dr. Martha Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing. E-mail them to mferick@umn.edu or send them to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.

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