Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Bathroom Question

It's an issue you rarely think about until you have kids: when are they old enough to go to the bathroom alone in public places? And what do you do when you have a different sex/parent child in a public place and have to use the bathroom? This issue get really thorny for some special needs families.

We started letting Anna visit the restroom on her own in restaurants about a year ago. There was a lot of trepidation on my part. Anna takes after me in that her sense of direction in new places is a little weak. Dan hasn't had to taken Anna inside a bathroom with him since she was about 4, which seems to be the age when things get uncomfortable, particularly if you're talking about a girl in a men's room, where things are, ahem, a lot more out in the open.

Little aside here: I remember once being in a Barnes & Noble bathroom with Anna when she was maybe three, and she began wailing when she realized Daddy was using a different bathroom. "He's a man, he has to use the men's room," I explained, to which she yelled, at the top of her lungs echoing through the toileted chambers, "It's not fair! I want to be a man!"

Thank God we were already in the bathroom, because I was laughing so hard I nearly peed my pants.

So now we come to the issue of Ethan and public bathrooms. I've noticed the ladies are more understanding about little boys in public bathrooms, probably because 1) We always seem to need to use the bathroom more often than men, which makes it more likely we're going to have our kiddos with us and 2) We worry. We fret. We're women. We know there are weirdos out there and we want to keep our kids with us for as long as possible.

Ethan is 4 but looks like a kindergartner or first grader, but he still hasn't gotten any looks of disdain yet. You know -- those looks from women that betray their discomfort and displeasure at a member of the opposite sex being there.

A typical kid at some point obviously reaches that threshold and can use the bathroom alone. We still aren't quite there yet with Anna in really busy public places, like amusement parks. But at some point, we'll trust her.

But what about kids, what about adults with special needs?

I have several friends with boys who have autism who have dealt with the issue first hand. It's not always pretty. Women see a boy nearing teenager-hood in their bathroom and don't know what to think. In some ways, the more severe and obvious the disability, the more understanding people are. But sometimes autism can be invisible. These young people look perfectly capable, yet emotionally and mentally, there can be all kinds of issues if they are in the bathroom on their own. Some will go in and not want to come out, preferring to play in the sink. Some might have a deathly fear of the sound of the toilet flushing or hand dryer and need someone there to walk them through the process. Some might forget about privacy and closing the door and not quite be discreet, opening themselves up to not only ridicule, but possibly abuse. It is not a safe world out there.

So now we come to Ethan, who has recently come to the realization that he is in fact different from mom and Anna, and when it's just the three of us, sees using the men's room as some kind of status symbol.

"There it is!" he'll say, after looking like a hawk for the little man's picture. "That's the man's room. I want to use that room."

"Um, you can't today, daddy's not here," I'll tell him, which is incredibly confusing. Why is it okay when daddy's there but not to go in there alone? "You're too young," I tell him, although I let him use the bathroom in Toys R Us once. And in the library. These deviations only create confusion, however.

All of this has made me think, really think about the skills necessary for using the bathroom alone. To me, it all boils down to:

The child needs to know how to go in the bathroom, discreetly go, wash hands, and come directly out. For Ethan, apparently the one thing he doesn't have down is the "discreet" part. I found this out from Dan, who told me he's not using the urinal quite right, or being as "subtle" as he should.

"What does that mean?" I asked him, not that I really wanted details. "This is something you're going to have to teach him. Isn't it one of the manly arts?" (We have this ongoing joke about "manly arts." It was an article Dan read in Equire magazine, covering what every man should know how to do, like changing tires).

So Dan's going to work with Ethan on that part, since I'm obviously rather and rightly clueless.

The other issue is more subtle. What about the whole social aspect? What about not commenting on what other men are doing in a very public way, or responding if someone did speak to him, or not barreling someone over to get to the paper towels? These are the nuances that can't necessarily be taught, or may take years to fine tune.

I was with the kids in Wal-Mart the other day and was still in a stall after the other two had finished. Things did not go well. Ethan started pounding on Anna for no reason other than that he wanted to be an annoying little brother. Then a lady came in and I heard Ethan say loudly, "This is a LADIES room!"

"Ethan!" Anna was hissing at him. "Did you say that because you thought she was a man? That was a lady!"

I'm not sure why he said it. I think he was just acknowledging his place, that his lot in life at that particular moment was to stand around waiting in the ladies rather than mens room. Although he does tend to assume most women (particularly if they have short hair and are rather masculine looking) are indeed men.

I write at length (too much length, I'm guessing!) about this, and I try to bring in a little humor, but for some people, this really isn't funny. I am fairly confident that within a few years Ethan will be able to use most public restrooms on his own. For others, it is an impossibility. And for those families, I pray for grace and most of all understanding from others. I pray that people will think before giving a glare or making snarky comments. For some it's not just a bathroom break, it's a stressor, another time they know they will endure stares for being different. That should not be.

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