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The Appeal of Gross Out Humor

Poop happens. So do scabs, pus, and earwax. Anything gross, parents know, goes over big with preteens. Witness 10-year-old boys who hold spitting contests. Or the girl who asks, "D'ya like seafood?" then displays a mouthful of chewed tuna. "See my food?"

Toy makers are cashing in on this phase with offerings like Gooey Louie, a game in which kids pick boogers out of Louie's nose. Get the wrong one and Louie's head explodes. (Cool!) Meanwhile, guests on Nickelodeon get "slimed," and let's not even talk about South Park.

If all the giggly fart jokes from the backseat make you scream, just remember they're as much a part of late childhood as candy bars and video games. An occasional (or even frequent) distasteful remark doesn't mean your child will end up as a guest on the Jerry Springer Show.

[STYLE {WHAT'S SO FUNNY ABOUT FARTS?} {SECTION}]"Joking about unsavory subjects is very much a normal phase of development," says David Pruitt, M.D., director of the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "Kids are exploring what's funny and what's not."

"They're also fascinated with their own bodies," says Sylvia Branzei, a science teacher and author of Grossology, a children's book that describes bodily functions in excruciating detail. (It has spawned three sequels and a website.)

Furthermore, Branzei and Dr. Pruitt agree that a desire for popularity at school triggers the "poop and fart" stage. "Being gross is an easy way to gain acceptance," says Branzei. "Kids will see a classmate get recognition for a burp or joke, then try it themselves at home. The mix of inquisitiveness and taboo is a powerful draw."


Use your child's natural curiosity. "When he tells a fart joke," says Branzei, "explain that bacteria turns food into methane gas. Once kids know some of the science, the taboo lifts and their interest diminishes."

What about public displays, like, say, a belching contest at church? Branzei suggests two tactics: "Inform him that such behavior is forbidden in public. Or ignore him. If he doesn't get a reaction, he may lose interest." Note, however, that if a child becomes so preoccupied with a questionable subject that it affects schoolwork or friendships, you should consult your pediatrician.