Parenting • Aug 05, 2013

When can my child use the public restroom alone?

My 4-year-old now refuses to use public ladies’ restrooms with me.  “I’m a boy!” he tells me… So what should a mom do?  When is a child old enough to use a public restroom by himself?  What is the real risk here?

RestroomsAlthough the idea of sending my children into a public restroom alone is quite horrifying, the incidence of child abuse in restrooms is rare.  The vast majority of child sexual abuse is from persons known to the child, not strangers in restrooms.

But these cases do happen:

  • A  6-year-old on a kindergarten field trip in Albany,  NY was subjected to sexual contact by a 22 year-old man in a museum men’s room in June, 2013.  His mother was waiting outside the door.
  • A 12-year-old boy in New York City reported being raped in the men’s room of a South Street Seaport shopping area while his grandmother waited outside, also in June 2013.
  • A 6-year-old boy was reportedly sexually assaulted in a public bathroom at a Berkley, CA marina, also in June 2013.
  • In January, 2013 in West Nyack, N.Y., a man hid in the women’s room in a mall. He was accused of following a 7-year-old girl into a stall and sexually assaulting her while her father and a sibling waited by the bathroom entrance.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children feels that children of any age should not be permitted to use public restrooms alone.

The easiest solution is to find a unisex or family restroom.  Even my 4-year-old son is happy to use the family restroom, and I can be assured that he is safe and even washes his hands.  Family restroom laws are changing and, in many states, public establishments with more than six toilets are required to have a family restroom.  Ask for help finding the family restroom, which many not be near larger unisex restrooms.

Many older establishments still don’t have family restrooms… and so you’re stuck.  I still drag my 4-year-old son into the ladies’ room, but things are getting harder with my 9-year-old son.  One hotel we stayed at even had a sign outside the restrooms stating that any child over age 7 had to use a gender-appropriate restroom.

Public Restroom Survival Guide

  • Never send a child into a public restroom alone.  Ask for assistance from a security guard or employee of the establishment, if needed.  Don’t accept help from well-meaning strangers who offer it, often as they walk out of the restroom.
  • Instruct your child to use a private bathroom stall rather than a urinal.  Also instruct them never to talk to a stranger in a bathroom.  If a stranger talks to them, they should know to respond that they are not allowed to talk to strangers in bathrooms.
  • Avoid restrooms with more than one entrance.  You might need to go to a different area to find a smaller restroom with only one entrance.  Then, try to make eye contact with anyone who enters the restroom while your child is inside.
  • Stand in the door and talk to your child throughout their time in the bathroom.  Call out things like, “Is anyone else in the bathroom?”  “Remember, we don’t talk to strangers in bathrooms.”  “Do you need help?”  “Did you wash your hands?” “Can you reach the soap?”

Don’t be afraid that you might embarrass your child by talking to them at the doorway.  At very least, your child won’t forget to wash their hands.

When do you think your kids are old enough to use a public restroom by themselves?  When do you stop monitoring them by the door?  We’d love to hear your public restroom survival tips in our comments section below.