“I want to go to the public bathroom by myself!”

7 Kidpower Tips to Plan for Safety, Skills, and Independence

Written by Erika Leonard

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 It's normal to worry when your children want more independence.

It’s normal to worry when your children want more independence.

“Mom, I’m too big to go to the ladies’ restroom. I want to go to the men’s restroom by myself!”

During our Kidpower parent workshops, mothers are most likely to express worry about the day their sons will say these words, but we know this worry is not limited by gender. It’s norm­al for adults of any gender to worry about children of any gender using a public restroom alone.

Family restrooms aren’t always an option, and most adults realize that eventually, kids need to be able to use public restrooms on their own. Instead of worrying, adults can prepare children by clarifying boundaries and gradually building skills that will help kids take charge of their safety in public restrooms when that time comes.

1) Tell Kids What Bathroom Signs Mean to You
Bathroom signs communicate a boundary. We recommend that adults with young kids interpret them as boundaries about the gender of the adult in charge, not the gender of the kids, and that they teach children to do the same.

So, a dad taking his 4-year-old girl and her friend to the movies would take them with him into the men’s restroom.

If the friend, also 4, says, “I’m a girl. I want to go in the women’s bathroom!” he could say, calmly and confidently, “Thank you for speaking up. The sign refers to the grown-up in charge. At this busy movie theater, we Stay Together.”

If she acts upset and says, “I’m going to tell my mom you took me in the wrong bathroom!” he can say, “Telling is a good idea! I see this bothers you, and problems should not be secrets. You can talk about this all you want. And, we will Stay Together so I can be in charge of your safety.”

2) Set Clear, Firm Boundaries
This is about safety, so a child gets to feel unhappy about your choice and gets to talk about it, but the adult in charge makes the final decision.

Discussing boundaries in advance can prevent some problems by helping kids feel informed and involved. A mom might say to her 9-year-old son before a ball game in a huge arena, “I’m happy to take you to the big game! This is a place where we will Stay Together when we go to the restroom. Do you still want to go?”

He doesn’t make the final choice about the restroom, but he knows the boundary in advance gets an opportunity to prepare. They can talk about options with the understanding that safety comes first. They can make a plan for building additional skills so that the boy is confident that he will be able to use this restroom independently when they both agree he is ready.

3) Make Safety Plans for Bathroom Use
Talking in advance about the Safety Plan for bathroom use can prevent problems. The mom sending her 4-year-old on a movie outing with a friend and the friend’s dad can talk first with the father about the plan. Then, she can say to her child, “You will be using the men’s restroom at the movies today, because your grown-up in charge is a man, and I want you to Stay Together with your grown-up in charge.”

Teachers can make Safety Plans for bathroom use on field trips, making sure to let kids and adult volunteers know what the plan is in advance. Kids and volunteers can ask the teacher about the plan if he or she forgets!

4) Start Small: All Bathrooms Are Not Equal
Public restrooms vary widely. A child will be able to manage using some restrooms independently long before others.

Small, single-person, well-supplied public restrooms with lightweight doors, simple latches, and reliable lighting in calm places are great spots to start practicing skills for using restrooms independently. Stay close by so you can hear each other, and give help if it’s needed.

As you gradually expand to independent use of bigger and busier restrooms, pay attention to structural factors, like number of exits and size, as well to as human factors, such as isolation, crowding, and the nature of the crowd – families and kids? Adults? Are people drinking?

These and other factors can affect a child’s experience. Know your own child’s skills and assess whether this is a ‘together’ or ‘on your own’ bathroom for this child today.

5) Practice ‘People Safety’ Skills
While stuck latches or multiple exits can lead to trouble, most adults worry about People Safety problems, such as molestation or abduction, in public restrooms.

Remember that worrying about or discussing danger builds anxiety and fear without building skills that can prevent danger. Instead of discussing danger, practice skills.

The People Safety skills children need to take care of safety in a public restroom are the same skills they need for being on their own, even for just a few minutes, in any other public place:

  • Acting aware, calm, and confident
  • Noticing and moving away from trouble early
  • Speaking up to get help from familiar adults as well as from strangers if necessary
  • Following Stranger Safety rules related to talking, taking things, or going places
  • Yelling to get help with a safety emergency

Coach these skills in fun, age-appropriate, interactive ways on a regular basis. Kidpower’s publications and free articles offer extensive guidance for doing this. Give permission for a child to use a restroom alone only when you have consistently seen and heard your child practice or apply the skills above over time.

6) Put Safety First
Sometimes, business owners or others in charge might say that a child cannot accompany a parent of another gender. This might happen anywhere from your local health club to a place in another country.

Unless you are truly confident in your child’s skills for being alone in the other restroom, stay together. Advocate for your child. Change your plan as needed, putting safety ahead of anyone’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense.

Restroom gender boundaries are so firmly reinforced throughout our lives that the boundary can accidentally stop adults from taking action to protect safety. Decide not to let this stop you in a safety situation affecting a child. Schools, especially, are safer when kids know that staff members of any gender will enter any restroom if they believe there is a safety problem inside.

If you believe you need to enter ‘the other’ restroom to help a child, be loud. Call full attention to yourself so everyone knows. You can yell for the whole world to hear, “I am entering this restroom. I am a [man/woman]. This is about the safety of my child.” If needed, add, “Call security!” or “Call the police!”

7) Time is Your Friend. Use It!
Start right away, but give yourself months or even years to foster kids’ skills for independence. This will help you worry less and have more fun together.

The more you practice and enjoy the process, the more you will understand your child’s actual skills and build greater confidence in your own ability to assess whether the child is ready to take on a new opportunity for independence. Your child will be building confidence in his or her own skills as well!

As kids are growing and building skills over time, know that every visit to a public restroom together with an adult in charge has educational value on its own. Every experience teaches a child a little more about what is ‘typical’ for how people interact in restrooms.

After hundreds of restroom visits side by side with you in many different kinds of places, your children will develop a much deeper sense of what does and does not usually happen in public restrooms. This foundation of personal experience will help your children recognize unusual behavior, including potentially unsafe behavior, and take charge of their safety quickly and confidently when they are on their own.

About Kidpower
KIdpower Teenpower Fullpower International is a global nonprofit leader in providing positive, effective child protection education and personal safety skills to all ages and abilities. Since being established in 1989, Kidpower has protected over two million children, teens, and adults, including those with special needs, from bullying, sexual abuse, abduction, and other violence through workshops, consultation, and educational resources. Our K-12 curriculum is used by families, schools, and youth organizations for their own child safety programs. Instead of using fear to teach violence prevention, Kidpower makes it fun to be safe! www.kidpower.org Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.   For more information, contact safety@kidpower.org


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About the Author

Erika Leonard
Kidpower Senior Program Leader Erika Leonard manages our California center and trains instructors.
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