Saturday, March 11, 2006

Toilets of Terror

My four year old is afraid of toilets with automatic flush valves - you know those little black cylindrical pieces of technology attached to toilets and urinals that are SUPPOSE to sense when you back away a certain distance and flush. In fact, sometimes it seems he's downright terrified of using public restrooms that have them (which tends to be most public restrooms).

Let's face it, four year olds can't remain still even when they're sitting on the toilet. And the smaller the individual, the greater the chance of moving enough of one's body outside of the sensor's field of view, causing a "premature" flush. So what happens when a small child wiggles most of his/her body just outside of the sensor's field of view - FLUSH!!! The sudden, unexpected splash of water along with the WHUSHING noise in the small enclosed stall sends most little ones into a sudden panic. Not to mention the unsanitary consequences of being splashed by toilet water.

It happened to my son again yesterday in a public restroom when he was trying to have a bowel movement. And so what happened (besides being terrified)? He refused to go and held it until he got somewhere he was comfortable with. Again, another unhealthy consequence.

And this isn't just a problem for pre-school aged children - it continues into elementary school. Surely not you say, as such facilities must use sensors specifically designed for children's smaller bodies and more constant motion. However this is apparently not the case. If such "children specific" sensors do exist, then they either are not being specified and/or installed correctly during the design/construction of schools, or if they are being installed then the sensors need to be redesigned themselves.

I know this because part of what I do for a living is conduct built environment ethnographies (sometimes labeled post occupancy evaluations). My partner and I are wrapping one up for an elementary school, and fear associated with unexpected flushing is a reality for many of the students. The younger and smaller the student the more likely it is be a problem, and on average it appears to be more of a problem for the elementary school-aged girls than the boys.

Fear of the restroom is associated with emotional distress, embarrassment, and ridicule from other students. This results in avoidance of using restrooms, general physical discomfort, and potentially serious health and hygiene consequences (for more information see and

All of this has a very REAL NEGATIVE impact on student learning. And this is compounded by the fact that adults have a tendency to ignore or downplay children's restroom concerns. The phrase "just hold it" is embedded in our adult cultural lingo. But these same concerns, if expressed by a fellow adult (or ourselves), would immediately be taken note of.

What's the solution? Well, I obviously can't lay out a detailed solution here. But in general adults, particularly those adults that deal with children on a daily basis (i.e., parents, teachers, etc.) must recognize that these fears are real and valid. My own four year old opened my eyes to this (as well as the research done by my partner, Bob Leonard, on this).

And the building construction industry must recognize this as well. Plumbing fixture manufacturers must re-examine these automatic flush sensors to see if they can be redesigned specifically for children - and they may have to design multiple models for different ages and physical sizes. Architects, consulting engineers, contractors, and facility managers must educate themselves on this topic, and building owners have to recognize the need for child friendly plumbing fixtures in those facilities frequented by children (from McDonalds to schools).

Life can be tough enough for kids. Do they really have to be terrified of toilets?


Anonymous said...

I agree with you! My 3.5 year son has a huge problem with automatic flushes and flush noise itself. In fact, in public restrooms, he insists on two conditions - don't latch the door or shut it while he is in there. Secondly, don't flush until he is out of the room. With regard to the automatic ones, he pushes himself away (I hold him below his arms for his convenience) and he tends to push himself away quickly as soon as he is done, and watches warily from a distance.

For your reference, I am from Bangalore in India. My two cents regarding a solution - dont just look at the plumbing, but also the entire toilet sanitary fixture design besides the space itself. Maybe there should be two doors, one to enter a "lobby like space" and an inner private room for the child (who has the assurance that his parent or guardian is nearby at hand - to protect him/her from some lurking monster). I also wonder the movies we see have something to do with creating such fears.

- Dhuli

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