After 35 years as a teacher, child development specialist, and mother of triplets, Betsy Brown Braun has noticed some changes. “It’s not that parenting is different, it’s that we live in a very different world,” she says. Many of the parents she counseled reported feeling overwhelmed by competing theories on child development, the fast pace of life, and the sheer amount to worry about. With families scattered, there were fewer older family members to model childrearing and fewer people to turn to for advice. That’s why Braun decided to write her book, Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. “Some people find the title off-putting,” admits Braun, who notes that every child is different. “This book is designed to give parents lots of different choices about what to say, but it’s a starting point. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but all kids will wonder about death. All kids will ask where babies come from.” They may also scream “it’s not fair!”, grab their siblings’ toys, and talk about one of their most favorite subjects at the dinner table: potty talk.  

Let's take this last issue, for example. Four-year-olds, especially boys, find toilet talk hysterical; parents and teachers don’t. This all makes sense, says Braun: four-year-olds have recently mastered potty training, they’re exploring limits, and they’re starting to develop a sense of humor. Had enough? Here’s her advice.

  • Explain the rules. “’I know that you really like to say words like poopie and pee pee and tushie. These are words that you may say with your friends who want to talk that way or in your room. Those are not words grown-ups want to hear.’”
  • Disengage. Laughing or reacting rewards the child. Consistently ignore further potty talk and ask siblings not to egg him on.
  • Use real words for body parts and functions. “Using correct names and labels gives the child permission to talk comfortably about these things, to ask any questions he may have and not feel embarrassed,” writes Braun.
  • “Teach your child other ways to be funny.” Once your preschooler has them rolling in the aisles with knock-knock jokes and slapstick humor, he won’t need to resort to potty talk when he wants an audience.

Ultimately, says Braun, parents need to be aware of the emotional baggage they bring to parenting, tailor their style to the child they have, and trust their instincts. Her job, she says, is really more about instilling parents with confidence than anything else.