Toilet Training in One Simple Step

Every day.  I hear it–and read it.  Every day.

Sticker charts.  Potty chairs that play music.  Potty chairs in every room.  Give them the iPad while they sit there.  Bribe them with TV time. Make them sit until they go.  Give them an m&m every time they go.  Let them run around naked.  They had it and now they don’t.  She won’t go when I ask and then she pees in her pants.  What do I do when we’re out.  He knows to go in the potty and today I walked in and he was squatting and pooping in the middle of the rug.  Mine was potty trained when she was 18 months.  He has to be toilet trained for preschool.   I’m exhausted.  I’m frustrated.  I find myself yelling “would you just go already?!”  I’m starting to think I need to hire one of those people like they have in New York City who come in and potty train your kid for a thousand bucks–it’d be worth it, this is crazy!  All the other kids are potty trained and he seems to have no interest.  We cheer every time he goes and he claps and cheers but it doesn’t seem to make any difference.  What books should we read.  What videos should we watch. Is there an app for that?  (Yeah. There is.)

You get the idea.

Well, I’m here with some good news, my friends.  Yup.  Toilet training in one simple step.  You heard me correctly.  One step.  That’s even faster than one day!

And get this.  Not just one simple step.  The whole plan involves only one word.  I ask you, could it be any easier than that?  I’m practically a hero.  I know.

Okay.  So the one word.   Well, actually, there are two words.  (yeah, I lied.)  But you only have to use one.  Take your pick.

So.  Here we go.  The failsafe, no work, no drama, no angst, no power struggle, no (or almost no) accidents, no stress toilet training method in one simple word:


Or, if you prefer the other word, you can go with that one.  That one would be, quite simply:  DON’T.

Yeah.  That’s what I’m saying.  Don’t do it.  At all.  Just wait.  Yes.  I’m serious.

You know why?  Because learning to use a toilet is something THEY do.  Not something WE do.  This is the first of many opportunities we have in our lives as  parents to understand that our children are people, separate from us, and that there are things that they can and must do for themselves.  And of course, there’s the reality that what comes out of their body and where it goes is 100% (more like 120%, if you’ve ever met a toddler) in their control.  There’s not a damn thing we can do about it.  And better yet, they know that.

I can’t tell you how many consultations I have done in which a parent says “He knows the potty is right there, he has used it many times–he even knows that he can ask for a diaper if he’d rather poop in a diaper!  And yet, I just walked into the living room, and he had pooped right in the middle of the rug.  Why in the world is he doing that?

Why in the world is he doing that?  Because he can. 

And because there’s nothing you can do about it.  

Make no mistake–this is what asserting power looks like.

I’m telling you.  This is in their control.  Completely in their control.  When I hear of a child who is willfully pooping in the middle of the floor, I don’t wonder what has gone wrong with potty training.  I wonder what it is about that child’s life that is leaving them feeling so powerless that they feel compelled to drive home that there is one thing that they really have complete power over.

Kids will decide on their own?  They will really do it all by themselves? They really all do it even if we don’t teach them? Clearly you’ve never met a child as stubborn as mine!

Yes.  Yes, many of us have stubborn children.  Yes, they will decide.  Not necessarily on your timetable, of course.  On their own timetable.  Some things don’t happen on your timetable.  This is one of the great lessons of parenthood.

I know it’s hard to believe.  We have so many products and books thrown at us.  We have so many conversations with other moms, “comparing” stories as if we were war buddies (for that is, indeed, how some parents feel during this stage).  We have pressure from family (“you’re babying him–you were potty trained at 18 months!”), from friends (“is she potty trained yet?  I trained mine in a weekend, and it was SO worth it!”), from the clear superiority of parents other countries (“In France, you would never see a three year old walking around in diapers!”) and even from preschools or child care providers, who, of all things, make their decisions about a child’s educational experience hinge solely on whether the child eliminates into a diaper or a toilet (which is patently absurd.)  There’s a lot of pressure on us.  But I’m telling you right now, you don’t have to do it.  In fact, you can’t do it.

Yes, they really decide.  Yes, you are in great company–many parents feel like their child will never decide.  Yes–barring a significant disability that impacts their ability to regulate elimination or awareness of it–they do really all come to it on their own.  It’s sometimes later than we think it will be–but not always.  Some kids decide at 2.  Some kids decide at 3.  Almost all of them decide by 4.  In my experience, most decide sometime around 3 to 3.5.  But yeah, every child is different.

And get this:  Whey they do decide, it’s over.  Over.  In one day.  Without tears, without stickers, without angst, without accidents (or nearly so), without drama, without m&m’s, without potty chairs that play music when they pee.

But wait.  If it is really not possible for parents to potty train kids–if it’s really something that they have to do themselves–then how is it that so many people ARE potty training their kids, and successfully at that?    Good question.

It is true that young children are eminently trainable.   They learn languages easily, they can be taught to do any one of a million different tasks.  The idea of their “trainability” is never more obvious than when looking at the sheer number of products intended to make babies read earlier, do math as toddlers, or even be (purportedly) all set up to excel in a sport (just today, I saw a question on a parenting board asking if anyone knew of T-ball leagues for children between 18 months and 2.3).  They do learn fast.  It’s a time of unprecedented brain growth.  We call them “little sponges”, and in a sense, that they are.   So maybe I should be clearer here.  It’s not something you can’t teach them do.  It’s something–like any of the above examples–that comes at a cost in the long term, and that has no long term benefits…which does make you wonder why anyone would want to do it.  Let me explain.

As I’ve mentioned a few times already (and probably will mention another time before we’re done,) elimination is something–one of the first big things– that our children have complete control over.  Even if we are successful in persuading or bribing or convincing or training them to exert that control according to our timetables and wishes, there is a lesson learned, a lesson that may look different and emerge differently in each child.

One child may learn the lesson that we can control where and when they go to the bathroom–but that they can refuse to let anything out of their body if they so choose.  These children sometimes turn into “holders”, children who are predisposed to urinary tract infections, bladder infections, persistent constipation (which can lead to more serious health problems) and sometimes increased stubbornness in a more general sense.

One child may learn the lesson that we, as their parents, are in charge of their body and all that it does, rather than them.  These children sometimes wind up not really understanding their own boundaries, and sometimes will put in double the effort to find ways to take control over what their bodies can do that we cannot control (e.g., screaming, running from us, swearing, spitting.)  They may also, in the long run, struggle more with trusting their own intuition, a critically important skill for both safety and self-confidence.

One child may learn the lesson that we do not trust them.  The long term impact of feeling disrespected and not worthy of trust is potentially powerful.  These children may, in turn, have difficulty trusting themselves or us, or may demonstrate lack of respect for us as parents.  We know that respect is modeled.  When we show respect for our children and their autonomy, they return that respect.

One child may learn the power of shame.  When they fail, over and over again, to meet our standards, when they have accidents and we respond with disappointment or frustration, when they wet their pants in public and other children laugh at them, they learn that their body and what it does is something to be ashamed of.  You don’t want that.

Or maybe it will all go just fine.  Maybe you won’t see any problems.  Maybe it will work for you.  Maybe your child will be the one whose take-away is “I can do this! I’m a big kid!”  Yes, those children exist, too.  There’s no surefire way to know in advance which one your child will be.

Or maybe there is.

If you try it, and it’s not working–easily–then they’re not ready.   Wait.  When they’re ready, it’s a snap, no matter what you do to facilitate it–including nothing at all.

Okay.  But how do we know when they’re ready?  Ah.  Great question.

You know when they’re ready because they tell you.  They tell you with their words and they tell you with their behavior.  Both.   You listen.  You observe.  You notice.   You trust them to let you know.

Know that there are three critical things that children must have to be fully ready to leave diapers behind:

Physical maturation:   Muscle control that allows the child to voluntarily hold and release urine and bowel movements.  Ability to pull pants on and off and wipe after going.

Cognitive awareness & maturation:  Awareness of when they need to go, awareness enough in advance that there is time to make it to a bathroom, ability to delay gratification such that they can interrupt their play long enough to go, and understanding of what they are supposed to do when they get to the bathroom.

Emotional maturation and readiness:  This is the one that we most often miss.  We know they can hold it.  We know they can dress and undress themselves.  They tell us they want to go in the potty–and we’re trying to listen. We’re sure they’re ready.  But then when they sit, they don’t or can’t go.  There’s a reason for that.  As weird, and maybe gross, as it may sound, young children feel ownership of the waste products that come out of their bodies.  For them it is “letting go” of something that belongs to them.  Have you ever seen a toddler when someone wants them to give up their shovel or put away their toys?  Letting go is hard at this age.  And ownership is a big deal.   It sounds strange to us as adults, but this is a loss to young children.  They need to be willing to let go of things that belong to them, let go of a situation that is comfortable and easy for them and that they’re used to (peeing in a diaper).  This is a readiness that they can only come to on their own–and until they have this, toilet training will either not go well, or may backfire at some point in the future.

So, what should we do?

1) Avoid jumping the gun.  When your toddler says “Mommy, I’m peeing!” in their diaper, recognize this as an early sign of growing awareness, not a sign that they’re ready to be potty trained.  I know it’s tempting and it’s exciting.  Acknowledge their awareness “You can feel the pee coming out of your body and going into your diaper!  Thank you for telling me!”

2)Take responsibility for knowing what genuine readiness looks like.  “Mommy, I want to wear underwear” is not a surefire indication that they are ready.  It might be.  For some children it is.  If your child says this, you explain to them that when they wear underwear, they will need to put all of their pee and poop in the toilet.  And then you let them try.   If they are ready, it will work perfectly (or near perfectly).  If, when you try, you find that they are frequently peeing or pooping in their pants or elsewhere in the house, or that they don’t seem to notice when they need to go (if it catches them by surprise), then they’re not ready.  This is not a crisis.  It’s not “going backwards.”  They said they wanted to try it.  They tried it.  They’re not ready.  You put the underwear away in the drawer, and explain that it’s there whenever they’re ready, and right now, it’s still time to wear diapers (without injecting any shame or disappointment into your words.)  They might be upset.  They might argue.  Or have a tantrum.  That’s okay.  They’re allowed to have their feelings.  You are the parent, and you have seen that they’re not ready (in one or more of the above ways).  So diapers it is.

3) If you’re reading this, and you are lucky enough to have an infant or young toddler and so you are not yet in the midst of this process, there are important things you can do now to make it easier when you do get there.   You can make sure not to use negative words when you change diapers (e.g. “EW!” “stinky” “what a mess!”), making them feel that somehow, the things that come out of their bodies are disgusting.   You can involve your children in the process of diaper changing from the earliest of ages–yes, even young babies can help in some fashion–so that they slowly gain ownership of their own bodies and feel confident that you trust them to be active participants in their own care.  This will pay off when it’s time for them to start using the toilet.

4) Let them see you go.  For many of us, this happens by default, because our kids follow us into the bathroom.  For others, it’s hard because it feels intensely private.  Young children naturally want to to do what “big people” (parents, siblings, classmates) do.   Modeling helps them see this as a natural, normal thing that people do.  Answer their questions–calmly and factually–if they have any.

5) From the youngest ages, provide them with accurate labels for body parts, so that they know that their pee comes out of their urethra and their poop comes out of their anus. If these words are hard for you, practice.   A urethra is a body part–no different than an esophagus or an elbow or a vein or a kidney.  It is only our shame that makes the words feel different.  Reject that shame, and empower your children to know all about their amazing and wonderful bodies.

6) Make sure there is a potty chair or an insert seat for the regular toilet available, starting when they are toddlers.  No need to “invite” them or encourage them to sit on it.  If they have watched, they know what it’s for.  You casually say “This one is your toilet.  Whenever you want to put your pee or poop in the toilet, you can use this.”  And drop the subject.  They know what it is.  They know what it’s for.  They will use it when they’re ready.

7) Steer clear of power struggles.  This is a big one.  Toddlers don’t like being told what to do.  The more you ask or remind, the more resistance will develop.  If they seem interested, or seem like they’re maybe trying to hold their pee (crossing their legs, squirming, touching or holding their genitals), you can ask them if they’d like to use the toilet.  If they say no, let it go.   Keep in mind what you know about this stage of development–the more we push, the harder they push back.

8)  When it really seems like they might genuinely be ready–in all the ways discussed–you can offer that they can wear underwear or diapers and let them choose.  This should be asked without expectation, and whatever their answer is, it needs to be okay.  If they choose underwear and then it turns out that you (or they) were wrong and they’re not ready, acknowledge that you may have asked too soon and refer to #2, above.  Also, it is not necessary to switch to underwear as soon as you feel that they’re ready.  Plenty of children pee and poop in the toilet while they’re still in diapers–the diaper just comes off and goes back on afterward.  No big deal.

9) Steer clear of rewards or distractions.  This is an important developmental process for our children, one that needs to be conscious.

10) Know that nighttime–and sometimes naptime–readiness comes later.  Sometimes much later.  There are many many children who wear diapers during the nighttime, even when they are 6 or 7.  It’s more common than you think. Don’t stress about having them potty trained 24/7.

…and perhaps most importantly…

10) Consciously reject the frantic stress and high drama that so many parents seem to associate with this process (“Have you started potty training yet?  What are you using?  Oh my god, I’m exhausted.  I heard about this great book.  I am SO not looking forward to potty training!”).  Be the one who is calm and says “I’m not worried about it.  I trust that she’ll figure it out.”  They may shake their heads and “tsk” at you, but secretly, they’ll admire your confidence.

It doesn’t have to be a fight.  It doesn’t have to be dramatic or traumatic.  It doesn’t have to be a big deal.  It doesn’t have to keep you confined to the house.  It doesn’t have to involve countless books and videos and rewards and charts and strategies.   It can be easy.  Painless.  No big deal.  Relaxing.   Relatively stress-free.  If you wait for full readiness, it is all of these things.  Don’t buy into the dread.  It’s a natural part of life, and a part of maturation.  They will do it.  Trust them.  Wait.

[Note:  I know that there will be readers who will wonder why I did not include a discussion of elimination communication (EC) or the external pressure exerted by many preschools’ requirement that children be fully toilet trained.  I understand that there are many fans of EC.  I respect that it works for many families–they remain a very small minority, and my intent here is to speak to the experience of the great majority of families.  As for the preschool requirement, I reject it, and am in favor of the growing trend that such restrictions be disallowed via licensing or policy.]

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