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Potty Mouth

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: Our 4-year-old son is being badly influenced by a 5-year-old neighbor boy. During their play together, my son becomes more aggressive and they both do things that are probably normal for older boys, but which I don't think my son is ready for and wouldn't think to do on his own (not yet, anyway). They make lots of jokes about genitalia and lots of bathroom humor. They've taken to hiding in my son's closet (or elsewhere) and pulling their pants down, or worse, going outside to pee in the yard. The other boy has also persuaded my son to do things he shouldn't and then telling him "Don't tell your mom or dad -- it's a secret." Our son then lies when he is found out.

We discourage all of this and separate the boys whenever we see behavior we don't like (sending the other boy home and our son to his room after one warning). We are tempted to never let them play together, but we also feel it's important to teach our son not only what is right, but how to do the right thing when we aren't there to supervise him. I also don't want to alienate the boy and his mother (no father in the picture). If we don't deal with this issue now, we'll have to deal with it as the boys get older, when the undesirable behavior could be a lot more damaging or dangerous.

Part of the problem is that I'm not entirely sure what is normal behavior, developmentally, for a 4-year-old with regard to bathroom humor, curiosity about bodies, and lying. Are we overreacting?

Thanks for your any advice you can give us.

A: Although your son is being introduced a bit early on the developmental chart to this degree of bathroom humor and body curiosity, it's not of serious concern in and of itself. What I am somewhat concerned about is the recurring pattern of lying to you while being sworn to secrecy by his older buddy and "mentor." Some lying is certainly normal for children at all ages and should not be considered a character flaw, but your son is not old enough to have a strong enough conscience so that he can choose to do the right thing (tell the truth) on a continuing basis when it might cost him his buddy's approval.

I think you should have a non-judgmental chat with the other mother and express your concerns. I also think that these boys should have someone look in on them frequently when they do play together. It is not too young an age for your boy to begin to internalize that "We tell the truth to each other in this family." The amount of time the boys spend peeing in the yard, pulling their pants down in the closet, etc. should not comprise a majority of their play time. I would also be aware that these body explorations could begin to arouse some sexual feelings in your son that he is not well prepared to handle. I don't say this to frighten you, merely to make you aware of their possible occurrence. I would also attempt to broaden your son's social contacts so he is not as dependent upon this boy for his fun.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

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