Kids are curious. They grab, touch and lick icky things, and they want to know about all the goo — from earwax to snot and beyond — that comes out of our various orifices. Sometimes they might even be afraid of bodily fluids, especially blood or poop. Whether they’re interested or anxious about what they see, kids ask a lot of “gross” questions, leaving parents with the task of explaining some tricky topics. But experts say we should seize the opportunity to help our kids grow.
“When a child asks a question, it’s actually an open door for us as parents to open the door to the fascinating world of the human body,” says Dr. Elizabeth Thomas, a board-certified pediatrician.
Thomas offers three general guidelines for dealing with questions about bodily functions and germs: First, be honest. “I think that’s key because you want your child to trust you,” she says. If you tell your toddler the stork delivered them, for example, they will eventually find out that’s not true. “If we can give them the right information,” Thomas says, “I think it helps to empower kids so that they can give the right information to their friends.”
Second, relate the subject to something your child understands. “If you’re talking about gasses,” she offers as an example, “maybe talk about balloons.” And third, use correct terms. If you’re talking to kids about sex and describing where babies come from, talk about the “womb” or the “vagina” or what a “C-section” is. By using accurate wording, Thomas says, you’re creating a foundation of knowledge to build on as your child matures and requires more information.
Poop, farts and burps
One of the first conversations you might have with your kids about bodily functions is the poop talk. Some children have a fear of having a bowel movement because they think something is falling out of their body, or they might be grossed out by stool because of its smell. Other kids might be fascinated by its shape or color.
Whatever questions your children ask about going number two, Thomas recommends taking it back to the beginning. “I think the best way to explain to a child what poop is, is by explaining how it got there in the first place,” she says. “A great way to segue into that is talking about what happens when you eat food.” In simple terms, Thomas suggests explaining that food enters the mouth and then it goes through a tunnel in your body. Once you’ve established the tunnel concept, you can incorporate terms like “esophagus” or “stomach.” Then describe how the digestive tract helps the body absorb the nutrients it needs to get big and strong. Next, explain that some parts of the food are turned into waste because the body doesn’t need it and that’s why it comes out the other end in the form of poop.
If your kids are curious as to why feces smell, Thomas recommends using a simple analogy. “They can understand trash. So this is waste from the body.” Explain that different chemicals in the body work to break down the waste and that the body will eventually be ready to get rid of it. If your child is holding their bowels, remind them that the urge to go is an important signal to sit on the toilet and release the waste.
Similar conversations can be had around the topic of burps and farts, which can be amusing to children. If your kids are overdoing it to be funny, teach them that flatulence can be another signal that it’s time to head to the bathroom. Gas can also present a teachable moment about discomfort cues from the body. If you have a child who is belching or tooting frequently, ask them how they are feeling. Remind them that if they are having stomach pain, whether from gas, from not being able to poop, or even from going too much, they should let you know. That way you can address it by changing the foods they eat or even taking them to the doctor if necessary, Thomas says.
Boogers and snot
A conversation about the body eliminating what it doesn’t want can also be helpful if you’ve got a nose-picker or a booger-eater or just a kiddo who’s curious about snot. If so, Thomas recommends teaching your child what mucus is. “It traps different germs, dirt, pollen, things like that, so that it doesn’t get into our lungs and cause us to have trouble breathing,” Thomas explains. “All that stuff gets caught up in the mucus, and then the mucus is kind of pushed toward the front of the nose or even the back of the throat so that the body can get rid of it.”
When kids understand that mucus is like a dirty filter, they will be more hesitant to eat their boogers or swallow loogies. Of course, sometimes swallowing snot just happens, and you can’t prevent it, Thomas says. But she likes to teach kids to try to get to a bathroom and either blow their nose or spit snot into a tissue if possible. Any nose-blowing lesson is also an opportunity to go over cough and sneeze etiquette, as well.
If your kids are grossed out by boogers and snot, make sure they understand mucus is a normal bodily function. “If we don’t have that, it can actually be a problem,” Thomas says. And if your babe likes to dig for gold, explain that picking can cause their nose to bleed. This can often be a deterrent.
Blood, bruises and injuries
The sight of blood might scare some kiddos, and even make some adults squeamish. If your child experiences an injury or asks about the leaky red stuff, Thomas suggests discussing its importance to the body. “We can teach kids that, yes, it can be kind of difficult to look at your blood,” she says, “but if you think of looking at blood as, ‘wow, this is what gives me all that energy, this is what gives me life,’ then you can look at blood in a different way.”
Take it a step further and explain that skin protects the blood vessels, and that’s why we have to protect our skin. This can help kids learn to be cautious and safe on the playground. To avoid creating more fear, however, be sure to also include info about how our blood helps heal cuts, bruises and other injuries when they do happen.
Germs and gross stuff on the ground
The topic of safety is also an easy way to encourage your kids to leave yucky stuff on the ground. You know the scenario: You’re at the park, and suddenly your child reaches down and presents you with a cigarette butt. Use that moment to teach your child not to pick up or touch anything they can’t identify, because it might be unsafe or have germs on it, Thomas says.
Any discussion about “gross” topics might lead to a specific conversation about germs. And since germs are invisible, the concept can be hard for young minds to comprehend and may even be a bit daunting. Instead of creating a sense of fear about germs, Thomas suggests presenting the topic as a mission for children. She says to teach them to ask themselves, “What can I do to keep myself safe, and what can I do to keep my friends safe?” Thomas recommends washing hands for 20 seconds, or about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday,” for example. You can come up with your own fun rituals for your little ones to make them feel secure when it comes to germs and even have talks about the immune system’s incredible ability to battle the invisible bad guys.
Whatever weird questions your children ask about germs or bodily functions, Thomas says to keep one thing in mind: “At the end of the day, we want to empower our kids and let them know that they’re OK. We want them to know that they’re smart, they’re intelligent, they’re beautiful, and they’re made in such an amazing way.” If you do that, you really can’t go wrong with your answers to queries about “gross” stuff.