By Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D Last updated: 8 Oct 2018
~ 4 min read
Few issues in child-rearing create as much anxiety for mothers and fathers as toilet training.
And few issues generate as much advice — both solicited and unsolicited — from family, friends, and professionals. Whether it is the financial benefits of doing away with diapers to the adverse psychological effects of failure, everyone seems to have something to say about the subject. In my experience, the process goes quite well as long as parents relax and keep a few simple things in mind.
First, the key to successful toilet training is readiness. A child cannot be expected to complete a task if he has not developed the requisite tools for the task. Unfortunately, many parents fail to realize just how many tools are involved.
Obviously, the child must have developed the ability to control his bowel and bladder muscles. That is, he must be able to “hold on” and “let go” at will. And most children have achieved this ability by about 18 months of age. However, we are talking about a rather complex task. And while the ability to control the bowel and bladder muscles is necessary for successful toilet training, it is by no means sufficient. The child also must have developed the gross motor ability to climb onto the seat and balance himself comfortably, the fine motor ability to unfasten and remove his clothes quickly, the cognitive and linguistic ability to express his needs and follow instructions, etc.
Consequently, with regard to all the requisite physical and mental skills involved, most children will not be completely ready until months later. Thus, given the enormous variability in rates and patterns of development, the normal range for the accomplishment of toilet training is anywhere from two to almost four years of age.
More importantly, the child must be psychologically ready for the task. And this is where things can get complicated. Just as children start to become physically and mentally ready, they typically enter a phase referred to as “negativism.” This is when the child realizes that he has power in social relationships and is compelled to test the limits of his newfound power. His favorite word is now “no” and he takes delight in refusing any and all requests and instructions from his parents.
That is why it is critical for mothers and fathers to wait until doing away with diapers is something that the child wants as much as, if not more than, they do. As long as the child realizes this is something he can use to wield power in the parent-child relationship, he will be more inclined to drive them crazy than to cooperate. And the more desperate they appear to become, the more deeply entrenched his resistance will be.
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As an aside, some parents induce cooperation by offering rewards — usually candy or some other sweet treat — for using the toilet. While this method does work on occasion, it can be rather risky as it reinforces the child’s sense of control. I’ve often witnessed the scene where a “successfully trained” child grabs a candy bar while waiting in the supermarket check-out line with his parents. When they tell him he can’t have it and has to put it back, the child squats and squints, indicating that if he doesn’t get what he wants, he will punish his parents by pooping in his pants.