When you're out of the house and a kid says he's got to go, you can bet he means business. And after that panicked rush to find the bathroom — during a long car trip or a day at the beach — his mom will probably face a stark choice: Men's room or women's?
Parents don't think twice about toting little ones into a public bathroom, first in diapers and then when they're learning to use the toilet. But sometime during their kids' preschool or elementary school years, they may begin to wonder if it's still OK for a dad to be taking his daughter into the men's room, or if a mom should keep her son out of the women's room.
There's no set age when a child can use a public bathroom alone — it's one of the many gray areas of child-rearing, and the sometimes uncomfortable subject raises issues of confidence, maturity, privacy and fear.
"I hear about it from moms all the time," said Nancy McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "They want their kids to have some independence, and on the other hand, they want them to be safe. It's really a dilemma for a lot of parents."
If there's no family or single-use bathroom around, some parents are adamant about keeping their opposite gender children with them in the restroom into the 'tween years, fearful of strangers.
"What tipped the scales for me was that we were living in a rural area of Georgia, which presumably would be a very safe part of the country," said Liora Farkovitz, who was single when her sons were in early childhood. "We did a check to see if there were predators in the neighborhood. There were so many that even in the small rural town, it wouldn't have been safe to leave my kids alone."
The boys, now 9 and 11, went into the women's room up until about a year ago. Farkovitz, of the New York City borough of Brooklyn, has since remarried, and said her boys now go in together or with their stepfather.
Roller coaster fanatics George Hinkes and his 7 1/2 year-old daughter, who live in Dundee, Ill., face the issue at the amusement parks they love so much.
When his daughter was younger, Hinkes went into the men's room first to make sure it wasn't too crowded before bringing his daughter into a stall and he shielded her eyes if they encountered urinals in use. But at about age 6, he felt she was ready for the women's room.
"I always stood where I could see both the entrance and the exit to the bathrooms," said Hinkes. "Obviously as a parent, you're always going to be concerned."
Some parents don't worry about stranger danger.
"The likelihood that someone is hanging out in the bathroom in hopes that I will send my unaccompanied 4-year-old child in so they can molest them are slim," said Marta Segal Block, of Oak Park, Ill., whose son won't use the women's room and has used the men's room alone at the library or a restaurant.
Most sex crimes against children — about 80 to 90 percent — are committed by relatives or acquaintances in homes, not strangers in public, said Cynthia Calkins Mercado, an associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Though some parents base their decision on the location — coffee shop vs. huge stadium — McBride feels that a child, at any age, should never be alone in a public restroom. Once kids feel too old to go in with an opposite gender parent, they should go in with a friend, she recommended.
"Any public venue that allows access and opportunity to sex offenders has a potential risk," McBride said. "A bathroom is more private. It ups the ante."
The perception that bathrooms can be dangerous places comes from the extreme, attention-grabbing cases, Calkins Mercado said.
One of those came in West Nyack, N.Y., in January when a man hid in the women's room in a mall. The suspect was accused of following a 7-year-old girl into a stall and sexually assaulting her while her dad and a sibling waited near the bathroom entrance.
McBride endorses the idea of asking a woman with children to check on a girl in the bathroom. Parents can also ask an adult friend, security guard or employee of a venue to check on their child. That may be a good solution for parents taken aback by some health clubs that post signs outside the locker rooms saying that children 5 and up of the opposite gender are not allowed in.
Parents should base their decision on each child's needs, said Kate Gallagher, an educational psychologist. In general though, a 5-year-old can handle going into a public bathroom but shouldn't be asked to go it alone without being taught "protective behaviors" by about age 3, she said.
"Children need to know that they have the right to keep their own body safe — that other grownups aren't allowed to touch them, and the child needs to know who their safe people are to talk to" in case something does happen, said Gallagher, who directs a family and child care program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The behaviors are teaching them to be cautious and aware, not fearful, she said. Kids should be taught that "in the real world there are some unhappy grownups who don't do nice things to other people," she said.
A family restroom takes the pressure off. And more are on the way. Since the late 1990s, building codes have required newly constructed venues like stadiums, shopping centers and restaurants big enough to require a total of six toilets to also include a family restroom.
Michael Schiferl always scouts around for one when out with his 8-year-old daughter, who has a developmental disability and sometimes gets upset in unfamiliar, enclosed places.
"It's just a relief to see," said Schiferl, of La Grange, Ill. "It's valued for those of us that need to have a more private space in a public venue."
If parents do allow their children into the bathroom without them, they might want to cross their fingers that washing up won't fall by the wayside.
"I'm much more concerned about him not being able to reach the soap, or forgetting to pull up his pants," Segal Block said of her son, "than I am about anything happening to him."