Peeing. It’s a Control Thing.

Okay, folks. I don’t know if it’s the planets or the moon or something about the water or something else entirely, but there seems to be a sudden run on children peeing on the floor “on purpose.” Yes, I’m including all variations on this theme such as peeing in closets, on toys, on carpets, in hallways, on rugs, on clothes in laundry baskets. You name it. I’ve heard it all.

I’m admittedly somewhat dumbfounded at the frequency of this issue, so I’m going to say a few things that pertain to most or all of those asking this question.

Of course, the answers are slightly different depending on age and history of using the toilet or diapers or pullups or “toilet training.” With that in mind, a reminder that Visible Child advocates for entirely child-led toilet learning, which usually results in children being independently ready sometime between 3 and 4. It’s important to understand that “child led” in this case does not mean we do not have a role or that children are just offered a choice between diapers and underwear–it’s not unilateral decision making. We are still the parents, and it’s our job to use our adult brains and observation skills to ascertain children’s level of readiness across all dimensions, and to only offer choices that reflect what we know about the individual child’s readiness. This is an important clarification: In a child-led model, readiness isn’t a child saying “I want to wear underwear/go in the potty now.” It’s a child saying “I want to wear underwear/go in the potty now” in combination with your observation of all of the signs of consistent readiness.

Just to be fully transparent about my lens here, I do not support or recommend “EC” (Elimination Communication) or any sort of adult-led “potty training” or “toilet training”, including using the “let them run around naked to (subtly) encourage them to use the toilet.” If you haven’t read our stance on toilet learning, this blog post is a good place to start. Yes, I know that many parents will assert that there is nothing more “child-led” than elimination communication, and that your child DID make the choice independently. I understand your position, and it’s clear that we don’t mean the same thing when we say “child led.” What I mean is a child managing this task fully independently in a consistent, predictable way. That may still involve asking for an adult’s support with some portions of the task, but in general it means they are managing it themselves, including interrupting their play to go when needed, showing cooperation around going before heading out on a long trip, and not needing adult reminders or coercion or “tricks.”

So, with that in mind:

1) In my experience with hundreds of families, I can tell you that the overwhelming number of parents who have this issue of children peeing (or sometimes pooping) in inappropriate places have children who were “toilet trained”, sometimes at an early age (before 2.5 or 3). Not all the time, of course. Some children do self-learn early. And it occasionally happens in children who were entirely child-led toilet learners. I’m just saying that I rarely see this behavior in children whose transition to toilet use was entirely child-led.

Now, of course, if that’s you, that’s water under the bridge. If you did that, you did, and it doesn’t mean you get a demerit or should feel badly about that decision. We all do the best we can with the knowledge we have. The only reason I raise it here is because it’s often a piece of the puzzle, and I’m trying to address all pieces. And for those of you who are reading whose children are still infants or young toddlers, it’s something to consider as you make your decision about how to proceed.

2) If your child who is doing this has not yet consistently and independently used the potty or toilet on a regular basis, this behavior is a clear sign that they are not ready. It also may be a sign that you may have made a mistake letting them be naked as much as they’d like in the house (as one of the most famous “potty training” books suggests) or letting them pee in the yard whenever they’d like. Again, if you’ve done those things and not had this problem and you continue to never have this problem, you’re aIl set, you don’t have a problem that needs solving. However, if you have been thinking that maybe they are ready, this is a great way to know that they’re not. One of the dimensions of readiness is having the awareness and emotional maturity not to use elimination as an exertion of power. If a child is not ready to take responsibility for putting all (with the exception of occasional accidents) of their elimination products in a potty or toilet, they’re not ready.

3) If your child is older and has been routinely and consistently using the toilet for quite some time and is now doing this, this is almost certainly an issue of control. See #5 below for a thorough discussion of that topic.

4) It’s more often boys than girls. Yes, girls do it sometimes. Even toddler and preschool boys are well aware that they can use their penises to pee in any direction or anywhere that they choose. Girls similarly know that they do not have that sort of control. We sometimes reinforce this by allowing boys to pee in random places (because it’s convenient) while often not allowing girls to do the same (because it’s not convenient.) Kids are smart. They learn quickly that this is something they can do, and they do sometimes use that ability in ways that are far less convenient and sanitary (for us, anyway!)

5) This is the most important one, folks.

This behavior is a power thing. A control thing.

And, as we know, all behavior is communication.

With those two things in mind, this behavior is an invitation to you to look at the role and balance of power and control in your life with your child, ideally through their perspective.

  • Might your child be feeling as if they are told what to do or what not to do all day long? (I often invite parents to take a note pad and for one day, write down every request, demand, reminder, or correction they make for that one day and look at that list at day’s end, just to get a little glimpse of what your child’s perspective might be.).
  • Might your child’s life feel out of control in other ways these days? A new sibling, perhaps? A change of schools or day care settings? A loss? Lots of social outings, particularly for an introverted or highly sensitive child? A parent struggling with their own regulation or mental health in powerful ways? Control or pressure over their eating in some way?
  • OR….might your child be feeling out of control because they have more control and power in the family than they are equipped to handle? Some parents feel compelled, out of a desire to be respectful, to give children a great deal of freedom and lots and lots of choices, sometimes even choices about what activities the family will do or whether they will have outdoor time. Sometimes–and at some stages and ages–that’s great, and it’s just what children need. At other ages and stages, particularly ones in which boundary testing is a key developmental feature (if your child is three, I’m talking to YOU!), too many choices and too much power leave children feeling insecure; indeed, most boundary testing is a plea–sometimes a desperate plea- for more clear and consistent (though not punitive or angry) boundaries and leadership from parents.

Here’s the thing, folks. About child-led toilet learning, but not only about that. About pretty much everything. Children have very very little control over their lives. We may think we are so collaborative and democratic and open and well meaning, we may think we give them all kinds of choice. And the bottom line is that we make tons of decisions for our children (as we should, that’s our job!), and they have very little actual power or control.

Children know that, amidst this life in which they have very little actual power or control, there are a few things that they have 100% power over. Things that we cannot control no matter what (well, with the possible exception of controlling them via fear or pain, but that’s not what Visible Child would ever support, so that’s not included here.)

So what are these things that children have 100% control over? Anything that comes out of a child’s body.

What comes out of a child’s body? Fluids. Their mouths. Elimination Products. Words. Sounds.

Fluids? We’re mostly talking about spit here. But to be fair, also nasal secretions. You have no control over those things. Nada.

Their mouths? If a toddler has a mouth full of food and they don’t like it or want to spit it out or want to hold something in their mouth for an indefinite amount of time, they can do that. You can’t do anything about that. Toddlers also are really good at knowing how to use their mouths efficiently–they are much more competent and capable with their mouths than they are with arms or legs or words. That’s why they sometimes bite. It’s a tool that they feel confident with, and it’s effective. (sometimes we can block and prevent bites, sometimes we can’t, as any parent of a toddler knows). If they want to suck their thumbs, they can do that. If they want to bite their nails, they can do that. If they want to lock down their jaw and refuse to open their mouth to have their teeth brushed, they can do that. See? No power.

Words? Sounds? You can’t control the sounds or words that come out of a child’s mouth. If they want or need to or feel like screaming, they can scream. If they want to use words that you don’t like or that you consider “rude” or “hurtful” or “inappropriate”, they can use them. If they don’t want to say certain words, we can’t make those words come out. What comes out of a child’s mouth is a result of their own minds and the use of their vocal cords, and we don’t have any control over those things. This is a hard one for many parents to swallow, as we want to have that control, we think we have that control, we think we should have that control. And we don’t. Sorry about that.

And that brings us to elimination products. Ah, fun times.

Once children have sufficient developmental awareness and muscle control, children have absolute control over what comes out of their bodies and what stays in. Again, sorry about that. I know some of you wish it to be otherwise. Witness the massive epidemic of chronic or severe constipation in children, refusing to use toilets or potties, damaging habits of “holding.” And of course, the converse is equally true: children peeing or pooping in inappropriate places, sometimes as a way of expressing anger or rebellion, sometimes as a way to test boundaries, sometimes as a way to experiment with their newfound agency and awareness of their own power.

I’m going to say it one more time. Once children have sufficient developmental awareness and muscle control, children have absolute control over what comes out of their bodies and what stays in.

And here’s the kicker: Children Know This. They know what they have power over. They know what we have no power over. Kids are smart.

Which leads us to the ultimate lesson on this topic: When we have lives with our children in which we make or have made efforts to control things that are not ours to control, they will use those very things when they want to assert their control and power, either because they feel controlled or because they have too much power and control.

They use them to keep power in balance. They’re smarter than we are in those ways, sometimes. If they don’t have enough power, they seize it, using the only things that they have 100% control over. If they have too much power, they use the things that they have 100% control over to demonstrate how much they are in need of boundaries, someone to help them to regulate their own behavior when they cannot do it themselves.

Yeah, I can hear your question: But how do we know we know when it is too much or too little? Ah, the key question.

You know by observation, by knowing your child, and by experimentation. Parenting is nothing if it is not one long series of experiments and revisions and adaptations. And shortly after we find something that work or we figure it out, it stops working, because our children are always growing and changing and moving in and out of periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium. So we go back to experimenting and adapting and revising. Again. And again. At times, it seems futile or frustrating. It’s just parenting. Constant experimentation. Constant adaptation. Constant humility and growth and change and letting go. That’s the name of the game.

You experiment. You take a hard look at how much you are controlling or the factors in your child’s life that are creating pressures and stresses and control. You get conscious about all of it. And then you practice lessening it a bit. Letting go. Dropping the rope. Offering more control and choices. Does your child’s behavior get much more cooperative? Is your life with your child easier and a bit more peaceful? Great. Then you know it was too much stress and control. Is the behavior continuing or increasing? Go back to the drawing board. Where can you make more clear and firm decisions and not offer so many choices and demonstrate stronger, more confident leadership? How might you need to work through and let go of your own worry and guilt and discomfort at the idea of “taking charge”? Do those things. Does your child’s behavior get more cooperative? Do things get more peaceful and easier, at least after the initial burst of resistance to your taking a stronger leadership role? Does your child seem more relaxed? Terrific. Then you know it was that your child needed you to step up and set clear and firm boundaries. And in a few months, when there is a shift in one direction or another, you experiment again.

But what about now? What do I do when my child is peeing or pooping in inappropriate places? I get it, look for the dynamics and issues of power and control in my relationship with my child and look for why they might be needing to exert control via this behavior. I get it. But my child just peed in my closet. What do I do?

You clean it up.

And then you supervise. You don’t allow it to happen. If that means that for a couple of weeks, you need to have your eyes on your child or have your child with you or another responsible adult ALL of the time (and yes, I mean all of the time), then that’s what you do. They are telling you that this is not a behavior that they can be counted on not to do right now. So if you want it not to happen, it’s in your court. You have to prevent it. Because, as we have demonstrated, once it has begun or has been done, there’s nothing you can do about it. You have to be there, observing, ready to step in as soon as they start to take a diaper off or take their pants down, ready to get down on their level and say “I can’t let you pee in there. Pee goes in a diaper or in the potty/toilet. You can put it in a diaper or in the toilet. Would you like to walk to the bathroom or would you like me to carry you?” And you stay close enough so that if they laugh and run off and pee anyway, you’re still close enough to stop them. Yes. It’s a lot of work. “I can’t have my eyes on my child 24 hours a day.” Actually, you can. Not forever, but for long enough to figure out what this is about and address those needs and set firm and clear boundaries around it, you can. I know. It’s a lot. Parenting young children is a lot. And if we have somehow found ourselves up in a place in which our children have the need to exert this level of control as a way of sending a message, then here we are.

There are no shortcuts, my friends. A child who announces that they are going to pee on the rug or who pulls down their pants and pees on the floor in front of you when you’re busy cooking is a child who is sending you a message. You can focus on the undesirable behavior, or you can stop and listen to the child’s message: “I am here. I want your attention. You tell me no all the time, and this is something you can’t tell me no about. Watch me have power over you. Help me.” They already know it’s not okay. They’re telling you something. Listen.

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