Mom Freak-out of the Week: Public Restrooms and Kids

Posted March 6, 2009 by

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How do you know your child is old enough to use the public restroom by himself?

Last week, my husband was out of town, and I took my son to the “Super Great Wall Buffet” — our favorite cheap all-you-can-eat joint. I was all excited to have an evening out with my son, and also glad not to have to rustle up a meal using the minimal contents of my refrigerator. (“Hey Honey, how about applesauce-pasta-curry tonight?”)

So we were both happy with the buffet, until Alex announced he had to go to the bathroom. Then, I kid you not, he did a fake to the left and darted into the men’s room without so much as a “boo” to me.  You see, since he started kindergarten, my son has become more and more hesitant to accompany me into the “girls’ bathroom.” While I like the fact that he’s becoming more independent, another part of me has an internal freak-out every time this happens.  The first part goes like this:

“Oh my God. Is he putting toilet paper down on the seat? Is it clean in there? Has he shut the door of his stall?”

The second, major part of the freak-out runs more like this:

“OK, that man with the droopy mustache and Members Only jacket looks like a pedophile. If he touches my son, I will run in there and ram him with the busboy cart.”

I know this is not logical, and I know that it must be hard to be a man these days. I also fully realize that that my reaction is not fair, but I can’t help it.

So picture me standing right outside the men’s room, shouting, “You OK in there, Honey?” every few minutes, prompting many questioning stares from the men trying to get by, and pitying nods of sympathy from other moms who have been in my shoes. (Of course, Alex took his sweet time, never once suspecting I was agonizing outside the door. After about 10 minutes,  he came waltzing out of the bathroom, looked up at me and said, “Whaddya doin’, Mommy?”)

So, my question for you all is, how do you know when your child is old enough to use the public bathroom  by themselves? And how do you handle the situation without making an utter fool of yourself?  I also have a lot of sympathy for dads out there who have daughters…what do guys do?


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Lee H (Edit) Report

    Moms I am a father of five girls. Recently it has become uncollectible for my girls to use the same bathroom at public places when my wife is not around. If there’s a family bathroom that’s great because I can stand outside the door knowing no physcos are in there. Here’s my problem. When there is no family bathrooms. I’m okay when I see multiple woman entering and exiting when my girls are in there. The problem is when super perfect mom wants to take her eight-eleven year old boys in there while my girls are in there. Well GET THIS Boys are curious and I don’t want their curiosity sasitfied getting stand by the sink while Mom pottys.

  2. MommyMitzi (Edit) Report

    I found this website after searching for “boy accompany mom restroom age” after I was SHOCKED to see what appeared to be at least a 10 or 11 year old boy (he was at least 5 feet tall) in the women’s room at Disneyland last week, and then minutes later, two boys nearly as tall who appeared to be twins–probably at least 8 yrs old, also in the women’s room (couldn’t they watch out for each other in the men’s room???)! Who are the moms who are making these old boys go with them to the bathroom? Especially in Disneyland where there are a constant stream of parents and young children in and out of the bathrooms. It’s absolutely ridiculous to think that anyone could get away with any nefarious behaviour in a situation like that. The boys all looked mortified and embarrassed to be in the women’s restroom (as well they should be!) and I was annoyed because my 6 yr old daughter had to really go badly and they were making the lines just that much longer.

    I’m a mom of a 4 yr old boy and I understand the dilemna. I understand that there are some creepy bathrooms (big, remote, empty) and I understand that each kid is different. But use common sense and mostly, don’t so bubblewrap your children that a 10 yr old boy can’t go take a whiz on his own in a public restroom! (Or, to the mom of the 15 yr old girl–really, you have to let go. YOu’re not doing your daughter ANY favors by being so overly protective.) Teach your children how to be safe, how to scream bloody murder if someone touches them inappropriately, and then relax.

    And, go check out for a sane approach to parenting–and raising responsible kids.

  3. lauramyerson (Edit) Report

    I just wanted to say that I still have a problem with letting my daughter (who is 15) go to the bathroom by herself. If she is not back in 3 minutes I am in there finding out what is going on. I have been scared about kids going to the bathroom alone. My sisters child (11) does not mind going into the womens’ bathroom. His mother has not given him an choices. Good luck, I know as a parent that I worry about everything. Remember that people can molest kids in a few minutes it is a real problem!

  4. awstevens (Edit) Report

    Being a college student, I do not have children of my own and the ones that I have had out in public have been girls so I have always been able to go into the bathroom with them. I would have never imagined all the worries that come with children beginning to use the restroom on their own. I actually probably wouldnt have thought twice about it had I not read your entry. I think it is sad that things have gotten this scary in the world that mothers have to freak out about letting their children use the bathroom on their own. I think from now on I will be more aware of the possible dangers that could be encountered in these situations.

  5. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor (Edit) Report

    Dr. Joan, thanks so much for this great advice! It’s so true that having a plan beforehand usually helps both parent and child feel capable of dealing with things — even public bathrooms filled with strangers. 🙂 I’m definitely going to have my son start singing, as well!

  6. drjoan (Edit) Report

    As the mother of 3, with two boys ages 12 and 9 1/2, I know how hard this is. When my boys were around 6 they began going to the “guys” bathroom alone. As a psychologist I think I am even more paranoid than most about strangers, so I did what any normal psychologist would do: I stood at the men’s bathroom with my foot in the door and talked to my boys the entire time they were going. Also, when they were younger (between ages 6-8) I had them sing, loudly, so I could hear them and know they were all right. Unfortunately, that doesn’t fly with my boys now that they are older and cooler.

    As for appearing to be rude to the men who are coming in and out, I’ve never once had a problem (at least no one has ever said anything out loud!) In fact, most men have been sympathetic when I say, “Sorry, I’m a little paranoid about my sons being in there on their own.” I’m lucky that I have 2 boys — the older one is always in charge of making sure the younger one is protected (actually, the only problems I seem to ever have is them fighting with each other in the bathroom!)

    I would just review the rules with your boys before they go in. Make it simple and short: “Remember, no talking to anyone. Yell if there is a problem. Wash your hands when you are done.” It’s a fine line between watching over them and freaking them out that they are about to be kidnapped. If you keep it light and simple, it will be no big deal to them.

  7. Leigh (Edit) Report

    I am having this same issue. My son is 6 years old and does not want to go to the “girl’s” restroom. So I get all bent out of shape when we are out together without his dad and he needs to go. I know it is not logical to judge people bu I worry about who he comes in contact with in there when I can’t see him. I can just see someone hiding in the men’s room waiting for young children to come in. It makes me very nervous. I can handle it in small settings like family restrants etc…but at the shoping mall and at Wal-mart or big super stores I get realy freaked out. I know they need to develope their independence but it is hard to let go. I have talked with my son about not talking to strangers and to run and get help if someone even act like they want to harm him or they make him feel uncomfortable. I think all we can do as mothers is to educate them a much as possible about dangers but without having them scared of everyone.

  8. Ashley (Edit) Report

    I am not yet a parent, therefore this is not something that I have actually thought about. However, it seems to me to be a very legitimate concern. Hopefully by the time I do have kids there will be a more definite answer as to what age is appropriate to let the child use the restroom on his/her own. My guess is that I will stand by the door as all of you do hoping/praying that they come out w/out any harm.

  9. Laguna (Edit) Report

    I remember times my mother would still take my younger brother into the womens bathroom with us when he was around the ages of 5 to 7 years old. She was always very worried about him going into the restroom buy himself. I do not blame any mother for worring about there son, because there are alot of different people around in todays soceity to worry about. Elisabeth u said it best the family restroom is the way to go, but just wish there were more around. Also Regina, it was smart to ask if there is anyone still in the bathroom. Again my mother would ask that question when she would start to worry if my brother was still in there. The next man to walk out she wouldnt mind asking him.

  10. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor (Edit) Report

    Sue, Family restrooms are the best — I just wish there were more of them. And I have to say, I am impressed that you managed to shop with 5 kids, *and* get them all in the bathroom. Brooke, thanks for reminding me that guys don’t talk in the bathroom much. (No wonder they think it’s strange when women all get up from the table at a restaurant to go to the ladies room together.) And Regina, good tip about asking the last person in the bathroom if anyone else is in there, and then checking on your child. I guess I’ll have to start doing that soon!

  11. Sue (Edit) Report

    I realize this may not be real helpful, but I am very glad they now have “family” restrooms in a number of stores, shopping malls, etc, where parents can take their little boys and girls and not have to worry about who else is in the bathroom with their young child. Mine are old enough so this isn’t an issue, but in the past, I have taken the kids into the larger handicapped bathroom (separate from the Mens/Womens bathrooms) when needed or stood outside that door so I could monitor their progress and/or not embarrass a growing boy who may or may not have needed help with a pesky zipper. I believe it was a store worker who suggested it because I probably had all 5 kids -boy and girls- with me at the time (baby to grade school). I know some people get real territorial about the handicapped stalls/ restrooms, but you do what you have to do and parents who have to, or choose to bring their little ones with them to shop or eat out, just have to learn to ignore the stares, dirty looks and things muttered or said out loud to them. Most people are pretty understanding, as in “been there, done that” or they are “boy, am I glad I don’t have to deal with that anymore” which describes me now 🙂

  12. Brooke (Edit) Report

    I have a five year old son who will still go in the women’s room, but I know it won’t be long so thanks for the heads up.

    My husband once told me that is a sort of unwritten creed among men that you never innitate a conversation with another man in the bathroom. You can continue your conversation with someone if you walk in together, but you never make eye contact or talk to anyone else in there. If a man does he is suspect.

    Following that male logic, perhaps the thing to do is tell your children not to talk to anyone in the bathroom and always ask them when they get out if anyone talked to them.

    Other than that, I don’t think there is anything you can do.

  13. Regina (Edit) Report

    Imagine having a 7 year old son and an infant daughter. He didn’t always have to go when she needed changing, so then I was stuck with him wanting to stand outside the door and rushing thru the diaper change. But let me tell you it doesn’t get any better as they get older. He’s now 15 and I still worry when he wants to go to the front of the store by himself while I continue to shop (you know the horror stories don’t stop at young boys now-a-days). Kindergarten is a good age to begin letting them go alone provided they can handle ALL bathroom necessities themself (you never know what situation they might get into in there – then whatcha’ gonna do when they are sitting in there yelling “Mommy I’m done!”). But as a general rule, it depends on where we are and how the crowd seems. My husband feels it’s safer for girls to go in by themselves and he just won’t go himself if they are out by themselves. He does stand guard outside the ladies room though – and has no problem asking someone if she’s the last one other than our daughter and then opening the door and checking on her.

  14. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor (Edit) Report

    I’ve talked to other mom friends who’ve experienced the same thing — all of them report not being sure how to handle the whole situation. Julie, I can’t imagine how you would deal with two kids going in opposite directions. What a nightmare! I thought I had it bad. 🙂 Tandi, thanks for the advice. No one actually said anything to me, I guess I just felt weird standing there. (In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t block the doorway next time.) And Amy, I know exactly how you feel. I asked my son the same thing, and got the same reaction. (He sort of looked at me like, “Why, was I supposed to strike up a conversation with someone in there?” Definitely not the message I wanted to send!) Thanks for the insights, everyone, and keep ’em coming…

  15. Amy (Edit) Report

    I guess this is more common than I thought. My son is 7 and while I do not worry as much on the cleanliness/sanitary aspect of it my biggest freak out is the other men going in or coming out of the restroom while my son is in there. I always ask him when he comes out if anyone talked to him and he always kind of looks at me strangely and says “No”. It is hard not to worry about it when you see what you see in the media, it can happen in a second and your child’s innocence can be stolen just like that. It terrifies me!

  16. Tandi (Edit) Report

    I’m right there with you. I also have my 9 y/o take my 5 y/o and they have to stay together. I also stand outside the door, and usually men will wait when they see a mom camped out at the door. Most people who are parents understand – they’ve either been there or are there right now too. To those who don’t I just smile and say “I’m waiting for my son.” I’ve never gotten a rude remark.

  17. carousel66 (Edit) Report

    I know exactly how you feel. My sons are 5 and 7. They both want to use the men’s room. I am absolutly freaked out by them going where I can not keep an eye on them. I try to get them to both go in at the same time and tell my 7 year old to stay with my 5 y/o. Safety in numbers right? Other than that, I just stand by the door and keep an eye on who is going in and coming out. If anyone has any other suggestions, I’m all ears!

  18. Julie (Edit) Report

    This same thing happened to me last week! We were in the grocery store, and Henry announced that he had to go to the bathroom, and then Eli did too, and after a little lecture from me about, “You’d better really have to go, because we have to take off all your clothes” (they were in snow gear), suddenly Henry slipped right into the men’s room. So I was even more panicked than you were, because I had to take Eli into the women’s room (he still needs help). So then I also worried about Henry finishing and coming out to the cart and not finding us there (or not having paid attention to me shrieking, “We’re going into the other bathroom! I’ll meet you at the cart!” into the men’s room.

    Eli and I finished, went to the cart, and we waited. And waited. And waited. I watched several unsavory characters go into the men’s room, and come out. I was just about to go in when Henry came waltzing out, pulling on his snow gear, looking pleased as punch and very casual.

    So I guess kindergarten is old enough to go by themselves, in a secure bathroom in Maine. If I were in Grand Central I wouldn’t let him go in by himself.

    I’ve got no pointers on how not to make a fool of yourself, though. Clearly.



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