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Jackie Morgan MacDougall Headshot

Boys and Public Restrooms: When Is It Okay to Go Alone?

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Out of all of the "When is my child old enough" scenarios, this is one that gets my heart racing and palms sweating.

On vacation with my kids (seven, five and four at the time), we had a rainy-day outing at Boston's Museum of Science, along with my mother and two nephews (eight, seven). On our way to grab lunch in the cafeteria, we stopped at the restroom. It didn't even occur to me that my boys would go into the men's room. I spend a lot of time in public places without my husband and have always brought them into the ladies room, unless we're in a place where the men's room is a single (then I act like I'm the cool mom and send them in while guarding the door like a pit bull). Sure, my boys complain but I really don't care. I regularly tell them that my job is to keep them safe and healthy and, I'm sorry, but sometimes that means doing stuff they don't want to do and not getting to do things they would rather.

Back to the museum. Just as we walked up to the doors, my mother instructs my boys and their two male cousins to go in and do their business. "Uh, hold on... wait... I don't feel comfortable..," I stammered as they all piled in one by one. I stop one of my nephews (the last in the group to hit the door) and ask him if he sees anyone inside.

He looked quickly and turns back. "Nope, no one in here."

I breathed a short-lived sigh of relief until three seconds later, a stream of men begin to come out of the bathroom like clowns out of a compact car. Seriously, how are so many guys able to pull off a mid-week visit to the museum? At the same moment, a custodian comes from the other direction and begins to wheel his trash can in to the men's room. Wondering where the hidden camera is, I am now hyperventilating -- feeling completely blindsided by my lack of mental preparation for the moment.

My mother, visibly surprised by my reaction, strongly assures me that they're fine. She says this is what they've always done on school field trips during her many years of teaching (albeit 5th grade). Am I just overreacting? Maybe. But between the pangs of fear running up and down my spine, I'm also beginning to get angry. With one son just entering kindergarten next month and the other, while on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, known for being less than aware of his surroundings, I was not ready, in that moment, to just let them go -- especially without a conversation first. Isn't that my prerogative as a mother?

I asked my Facebook peeps for their take and whether they would send a boy into the public restroom.

Susan: My son is six, depending on where we are will depend on if he can go in the men's bathroom alone, however I stand right outside the door. I have also been lucky enough to have the guys coming out give me updates on his progress, like he is washing his hands now etc. Oh and I will not hesitate to walk in a men's bathroom if he is taking to long. :)

Analiza: I didn't let my boys go alone until seven, but if my 10-year-old is with my younger ones then I think it's okay. If they're not done in five minutes I knock on the door (just in case to make sure they're okay or check if they've just installed an indoor pool, lol).

Brenda: I think it was about eight-years-old that I routinely let my son go in by himself. I have been known to check inside first or go in if it's taking too long.

Cathy: My oldest was about eight before I would let him go it alone. By that time though... he was old enough to be too embarrassed to go to the woman's restroom and would usually just wait till we got home.

Heather: My oldest is six and is so tall he looks nine. I hate letting him go into men's bathrooms by himself but we get dirty looks when I bring him into the women's anymore. So he goes by himself at this age. I would have prob preferred seven or eight.

Grape Jelly on Pizza: He's seven and there is no way he's going in by himself yet. Maybe when he is able to talk better.

Ramona:
If I HAVE to, I let Mikey go in alone at seven but I stand at the door and constantly crack it open to call his name. Yeah, it kinda annoys the other patrons but at least they know he's being watched.

My kids made it out of the public men's room unscathed and none the wiser that their mother was freaking out on the other side of the door. I don't want to be that neurotic, over-the-top mom but something in me just can't let go of this one. So I asked an expert what he thinks the right call is.

Pediatrician Dr. Paul Horowitz says that decision varies, depending on the child and location. "That's a safety/comfort call. Sending your child into a single stall restroom when you're just outside is different from letting him go into the restroom at the high-traffic movie theater."

At what age did/will you allow boys to head into the men's room unaccompanied by an adult?