by Susan North and Heather Malley
It's easy to understand why parents want their toddlers to learn to use the toilet. Changing diapers is a drag; no one is a big fan of this parenting chore. Why not do everything you can to get the show on the road? Why wait and let your child take the lead?
Toilet learning is the first big accomplishment that engages all of a child's capabilities. Her first step or his first word are wonderfully exciting milestones, but they just “happen” in a way that seems effortless. A child seems compelled by some inner urge to walk or speak. And these behaviors are immediately, easily gratifying: he can toddle all by himself across the room to get a toy, or say “baba” and command a bottle.
Toilet learning is also gratifying to the child, but all the more so if he takes the lead. And learning to use the toilet, unlike speaking or talking, involves a more conscious decision. It activates all systems – cognitive, physical and socio-emotional - in an extremely complex and challenging effort of will. The child has to have the concept of “putting something in something” He has to be able to control his sphincter muscles. And he has to have an idea about why people use the toilet combined with a wish to join his elders and “the big kids” in doing so. It's very difficult for an adult, even one who knows the child well, to know for sure when all these pieces are in place. If all the systems are not “go,” both parent and child can get very angry, discouraged and frustrated. This is why current childrearing experts favor providing the child with a potty, some conversation about what it's for, perhaps a book or two on the subject – and then just waiting for the magic to begin.
The beauty of letting your child lead, with you as helpful assistant and cheerleader, is that at the end of the process your child really gets to own her pride and sense of accomplishment. The child who is nagged or bribed into using the toilet will feel that this was done to her, not by her. And no stickers or fancy prizes can compare with (or compensate for) a feeling of genuine self-mastery.
Toilet learning will be your child's first big production. He is the writer, director and star. You are just a stagehand. Enjoy the show.
Feeling pressured to rush toilet learning?
Sometimes a person outside your immediate family tells you that “it's time” or offers tricks and gimmicks for so-called potty training. This could be a preschool you want to enroll in, a friend whose child is already “trained”, a mother-in-law, the lady down the street. Do we need to respond to these people? What can we say? For starters, they mean well. Your best plan is to avoid an argument. Thank them for their advice and try to change the subject. If they press, just say you've decided to take a more relaxed approach. If they press further, you might want to share some of the philosophical ideas that underlie your practice. Or not – anything approaching an argument is a waste of everybody's time and energy. Keep it breezy. You can say “Well, I guess we have to agree to disagree” and change the subject. Your firm refusal to argue about this will eventually take the wind out of their sails. And eventually – at two or three or four – your child will have learned to go to the toilet and the whole issue will be moot.
The other common reason for rushing a child is because you are pregnant. This is a big one. Parents who are expecting a second child often feel pressured to get the older one out of diapers before the Big Arrival. This can really backfire. When a new baby comes, some regression on the part of the big brother or big sister is to be expected, so it's not at all unusual for a child who was hastily “trained” to suddenly ask for diapers or begin having accidents. The other part of the story is that a child who is just learning to use the toilet typically doesn't have a great early warning system, so you have to be ready to jump when (s)he says “jump.” That kind of availability just doesn't exist when you also have a newborn to care for.
Having closely-spaced children was your choice, and it's a good choice in many ways – but your older child shouldn't be penalized because of it. Look on the bright side: you're going to change a finite number of diapers in your lifetime. If your diaper-days overlap for an infant and a toddler, you will change diapers for fewer days altogether!
“I thought my child was trained and now she has backtracked! What happened?”
This is not unusual at all. It helps to think of toilet learning as a process rather than an event. The road to using the toilet consistently is not a straight path. There can be great leaps towards mastery followed by several steps backwards. Perhaps this has something to do with the “Big 3” of toilet learning mentioned earlier: the idea, the physical ability, and the motivation. Let's say a child understands how to go in the potty and has the sphincter control to make it happen. The first few times she goes to the toilet, her mom and dad are ecstatic – and she enjoys putting a smile on their faces. After a while thought, the thrill wears off. Sure, she could do it, but she'd rather keep playing and not be interrupted. Her “two out of three” take on the toileting process just doesn't make it to the finish line.
That is, for now. As she matures, she will feel different about wearing diapers. Once she is motivated from within, she will have all the necessary components and things will probably go very smoothly. It's easy to imagine parallel scenarios – for example, a child who understand toileting and wants to use the potty very much but has immature sphincter control – that could bring enormous frustration and disappointment.
What about “accidents?”
Just when your child has mastered the toilet, you may find that he has no interest in taking time from his busy day to go potty. Many young children who have successfully transitioned to the toilet are too interested in all the other activities that engage them to take time to go. Waiting four to five hours in between visits to the restroom can be common for preschoolers. Although holding urine for long periods is not healthy, it's reassuring to take note of how long adults sometimes wait between trips! Nobody likes to be distracted from work or play, or whatever is holding their interest, to go to the bathroom. Healthy toileting habits, including regular, self-directed visits to the bathroom, simply take time to develop. Gentle reminders, plus a relaxed and non-punitive attitude about accidents, can ease your child over this hump.
Twenty things to do with your toddler instead of obsessing about the potty
In hopes of getting a young child interested in the toilet, we sometimes start to sound like a broken record – urging, reminding and nagging an unready toddler about it. Though done with the best of intentions, this can be very intrusive and annoying. And unfortunately, it can engage a toddler's natural tendency to be oppositional, landing both parent and child in a battle of wills.
Years ago, we had a friend who was dieting. She posted a sign on the fridge with suggestions of things to do instead of snacking: do twenty pushups, water the plants – that sort of thing. She knew that her snacking was a habit that was bordering on compulsive and she wanted to break the habit. This list is offered up in that same spirit. Excessive pottying talk is a tiresome harangue. You and your toddler have much more meaningful and exciting work to do!
1. Flip over a rock and look at the insects and worms.
2. Make play dough from scratch.
3. Have a car wash with a tricycle/wheel toy outside (with a hose) or with small cars and trucks indoors (at the sink or using a wash tub.)
4. Read a book (a very young child may want to turn pages out of order; just talk about the pictures.)
5. Walk around the block and talk about what you see (no cell phone, please!)
6. Have a pretend phone call with your toddler using 2 bananas.
7. Wash doll clothes and hang them to dry on a clothesline or fence (clothespins are good for developing the pincer grasp and small motor coordination.)
8. “Paint” a fence or outdoor wall with water. Put the water in a small bucket or plastic tub and give your child a real brush, the wide chunky kind house painters use.
9. Ball up newspaper and try to make baskets in a bucket or wastebasket.
10. Lay out clothes “for tomorrow.” Talk about the weather that's expected.
11. Give your child bath toys from the kitchen – sponges, turkey baster, non-breakable measuring cups, funnels – so he can run his own experiments on mass, volume, gravity.
12. Lie on your backs and look up at the sky or ceiling. What do you see upside-down?
13. Put on a silly hat and use a funny voice. (Hat off, regular voice. Hat on, funny voice.)
14. Let your child sniff several different spices and decide which one to sprinkle on tonight's dinner salad.
15. Watch the trash truck.
16. Make a train/bus/subway car out of chairs. Toy animals or dolls can be the other passengers. Your child can be the driver!
17. Make some super-easy cookies and take them to the fire station.
18. Go through the freshly laundered clothes together and let your child match up socks.
19. Take out some of the pots and pans in the kitchen. Make “music” on them with wooden spoons.
20. Make sand castles.