Why Do Kids Love Poop Jokes?
Kids love to be gross. It’s just one of those things that come with being a young human, but parents are sick of it. I’m not talking about silly fart jokes, though—I mean actual poop jokes. “Why does everyone have to be obsessed with poo-poo?” asks my friend Justine, the mother of a 4-year-old. Justine says her daughter tells the same poop joke every day, over and over again—”And it’s not even a good one.” Have you ever wondered, “Why DO kids love poop jokes?”
Justine isn’t alone in feeling this way. “Does all preschool humor have to be about poo?” asks another mom on an online forum. “I had a talk with my daughter about going potty at school and she came home telling me how one of the girls pooped in her pants!” writes another.
“Why are kids so obsessed with poop?” asked reader Emily on Facebook, where I posted this story for discussion. “I tell my son all the time not to talk about things like that, but he still does.”
I’m not sure if kids are necessarily more obsessed with poop now than they were in the past, or if adults are simply hypersensitive to bathroom humor. But based on what parents have written me and commented online, it’s clear that there’s a lot of angst about this topic right now.
For years I never questioned why kids are so obsessed with talking about poo. I figured it was just part of being a kid, along with all the other gross things they do—like biting people when they’re angry, or collecting bugs in jars and then forgetting where you put them.
But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if this fixation is really normal at all. Will I ever find out why kids love poop jokes? Why do preschoolers love bathroom humor? How much of this is biological, and how much is cultural? And why does it explode at this particular age—is there a developmental trigger that makes kids suddenly obsessed with poo?
When I started writing about young children last year, the main topic was tantrums. But I also wrote about poop in kids’ books, and in these posts, I heard from many parents who were frustrated with the way this topic is handled in children’s literature. So often when a character has an accident or gets bullied for being afraid to use the toilet, it ends up building sympathy for the protagonist rather than eliciting empathy (and perhaps even reinforcing fears in anxious children).
But if parents are fed up with this topic, why do kids love it so much? I asked Kathy Nelsen, who has been researching the psychology of humor for almost 20 years. “Poop is one of those things that’s kind of universally taboo,” she says. “No matter what culture you’re in, that’s one of the biggest taboos.”
Nelsen says there are several reasons kids might be fascinated by poop. On the most basic level, it’s simply because body humor often develops at the same time as potty training—which typically happens during the preschool years. But she also points out that if parents start to make a big deal about this kind of humor, it can actually encourage kids to keep talking about it.
In her research, Nelsen has found that the average age when children tell their first poop joke is 3 or 4 years old—but she’s also talked to preschoolers who didn’t start doing this until they were 6 or 7. “I’ve had parents tell me, ‘Oh my gosh, he didn’t say his first poop joke until he was in fifth grade!'” she says. “So it’s something that can take kids a really long time to get comfortable with.”
This raises the question of whether parents should try to discourage this kind of humor—a topic that clearly arouses strong opinions. Nelsen says most researchers agree that it’s best not to make a big deal out of bathroom humor, or to try to make kids feel ashamed about their bodily functions. “If they’re getting a lot of negative feedback, they’ll just stop,” she explains.
On the other hand, if parents encourage this kind of conversation too much, kids might be more likely to overdo it. “Sometimes parents think, ‘Oh if I talk about this enough it’ll make my child more comfortable dealing with these topics,'” Nelsen explains. “But a lot of times what happens is the parent ends up making a bigger deal out of it than the child.”When parents ask themselves, “Why do kids love poop jokes,” they shouldn’t be too worried.
The Right Balance
In today’s kids’ movies, there are still plenty of examples of parents making a big deal out of bathroom humor. A prime example is the Pixar film Inside Out, in which one character steals another’s pants—and the victim humiliates himself by pooping on the floor.
At first glance, this scene might seem like harmless fun—especially for younger viewers. But it’s probably not the kind of thing parents should encourage, according to Mary Beth Oliver, a psychology professor who studies emotions and media. “Poop is funny because it’s about something that makes people feel disgusted or repulsed,” she says. “And disgust is tied up with morality—so you’re playing on kids’ sense of right and wrong.”
In one recent study, Oliver found that preschoolers who were exposed to negative humor at home (e.g., jokes about bodily functions, sarcasm, etc.) ended up having more arguments with their siblings—suggesting that they didn’t understand how to regulate their own emotions. And she’s also seen similar effects in a study of school-age kids.
Oliver says the bottom line is that parents should try to let their children enjoy body humor without getting too obsessed about it themselves—or they might end up teaching their kids some bad lessons. “Humor is one of those things that can be great for your family relationships because it brings people together,” she points out. “But it can also be a source of conflict if you’re not careful about the messages that your kids are taking away from things.”
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