You want unanimity in a non-unanimous world? Ask any parent to name the most terrifying words his or her preschool-age child can utter.

The winner won't be, "Where did I come from?" Or, "Mom, I think I want to put a safety pin through my nose when I grow up." Or, "Dad, I've decided to go to medical school, and I want you to pay for it."

No, the hands-down choice will be: "I have to go to the bathroom," uttered by any child under the age of 6, in any public place.

The reason for the terror, of course, is that bathrooms in businesses are almost never open to anyone other than the staff. The resulting scene is all too comic and all too familiar: parent hustles kid into fast-food restaurant (the only business where open bathrooms are sure to be) while shouting, "Hold it, honey! Just one more second, sweetie!"

Other businesses have toilets too, you may be sure. But rare is the establishment that will allow non-customers to use the facilities, even when the non-customer is three feet tall, doubled over at the waist and whimpering that he just can't hang on anymore.

Veteran parents have thus learned that you never take a young child anywhere without enforcing a pit stop as you leave home. But even that precaution doesn't come with a money-back guarantee.

Kids are kids. Their bodies have limits. They can't take a deep breath and tell themselves to think about baseball or Bar Harbor for the next 10 minutes.

Nan Ratner of Bethesda is the latest Levey reader to hit the ceiling over the bathroom policies of businesses.

There she was one day last week, at White Flint Mall, shopping for her husband with her two preschool children in tow. Nan picked out $60 worth of bathing suits. Just as she was about to pay and leave, Adam Ratner (age 2 1/2) piped up with the magic words.

Nan asked the sales clerk if Adam could use the bathroom in the back. The clerk said it wasn't open to the public. Nan asked if an exception could please be made just this once (Adam was by now starting to wince and cross one leg over the other). The clerk said rules were rules, and no was no.

Three cheers for Nan for doing what she did next. She told the clerk that she was leaving to find a restroom for Adam on the mall's concourse. She also said she wasn't going to buy the $60 worth of merchandise, and wasn't ever coming back.

This White Flint business can run itself any way it likes. It can also run itself into the ground any way it likes. By being inflexible about bathroom use, it is surely choosing the second rather than the first.

Yes, there are valid reasons for a business to keep the public out of its bathroom. No business wants to become a haven for street people or drug drops. No business wants to pay a cleaning service to scrub a bathroom if it doesn't have to. And no business wants to make shoplifting any easier than it already is (many pilferers would use a bathroom to hide stolen goods on their persons or in their purses).

But did Adam Ratner look like a street person or a shoplifter? Wasn't Nan Ratner clearly a customer and clearly entitled to a favor as a result? By saying no, wasn't the clerk running the risk of an "Adam accident," and a far bigger mess in the middle of the showroom than the boy could have made in the bathroom? And aren't rules made to be broken, especially when you can cement a sale in the process?

In case you're wondering, Adam Ratner was able to think about baseball and Bar Harbor long enough to reach the restrooms on the concourse. Clearly, he was a tough kid that day. Just as clearly, he never should have had to be.


Oh, how slowly our treasury fills. Oh, how badly we need it to fill more quickly and more fully.

Our annual campaign on behalf of 1,100 underprivileged local children needs help from all quarters. But we'd especially like to hear from those of you who want to take the name of our drive literally.

To do that, please send us a check for $352. If you can't afford that much, anything in the neighborhood will be greatly useful and greatly appreciated.

Your gift is tax-deductible, and it goes to support camping alone (no hidden expenses are covered). Thanks very much.


Make a check or money order payable to Send a Kid to Camp, and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C. 20071.

In hand as of July 4: $136,185.02.

Our goal (by Aug. 10): $275,000.