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.
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.
So when will the child be psychologically ready? The basic answer to this question is that he will be prepared to cooperate when he realizes that being a “big boy” is better than being a “baby.” But there are many factors that influence the onset of this epiphany, so again, there is a great deal of variability among children.
Although it is not always the case, it is fairly typical that later-born children complete the toilet-training process earlier than first-born children, thanks to sibling rivalry. The younger child sees his older sibling as having more privileges and having more opportunities for fun activities, and he is eager to do anything that will help eliminate what he perceives to be his second-class status.
However, whether or not there is an older sibling, as the child approaches the third birthday, he develops a wonderfully aware and imaginative mind that enables him to picture the many advantages of ditching the diapers. By reading stories or simply by talking about fun-filled events that are only available to “big boys,” parents can incite a strong desire to “grow up” as soon as possible.
Mothers and fathers can make this a more tangible experience by relating being a big boy to items and experiences that are directly important and meaningful to the child. Let’s say the child has become enamored with a particular cartoon character. His parents can buy underwear featuring that character and point out that it can only be worn once the toilet-training process has been successfully completed. Or let’s say the child desperately wants to go to a local amusement park. It can be explained that the park is off-limits to children who are still in diapers.
In doing so, it is important for the parents to refrain from turning this into an “if you do this then you will get that” scenario. Like the sweet treat reward situation discussed earlier, this can create a power-and-control situation in which defiance becomes more important to the child than acquiescence. Parents must remain as calm and casual as possible, and always project the notion that this is something about which the child may be greatly concerned but is really no big deal to them.
If a little more encouragement is required, then parents can also count on peer pressure eventually being brought into play. Up until about two years of age, children generally have little or any interest in other children—all their social and emotional energy seems to be invested in the adults in their lives, and perhaps their siblings. But after children pass the second birthday, this gradually begins to change, and they become increasingly inclined to play with their peers.
Once this kicks in, having to take a “time out” to get a diaper changed becomes a significant source of inconvenience for the child. Furthermore, having to be treated like a baby in front of his playmates becomes an enormous embarrassment as well, especially if none of the other kids is still in diapers. Consequently, trips to the park, the beach, or any other area that provides peer play opportunities are now transformed into major motivational events.
Finally, mothers and fathers should remember to react to any inclination to get trained and any progress toward that end with pride rather than relief. A poop in the potty that results in an “I’m so proud of you” or “I’m so happy for you” is likely to be followed by more, whereas one that results in a “Thank goodness” or “It’s about time” may merely remind the child that this is a potentially valuable source of power.
I guess the whole thing can be summed up best by a quote from President Harry Truman, who once said, “The key to successful parenting is to find out what your child wants to do…and then tell him to do it.”
Toilet training photo available at Shutterstock