So you’re about to start potty training. Maybe your two-year-old’s teachers have said that your daughter is “showing an interest” in the potty at school and you know that, to move up to the next class, she’ll have to be potty trained. Maybe your daughter says the word “potty,” and she likes the whooshing sound the toilet makes when it is flushed. She seems to bask in the hand-clapping and stickers and your squeals of delight when she uses the toilet. What’s more, your friend, another mom, has just loaned you her copy of The Parent Trap: Potty Train Your Toddler in a Weekend, which promises that if you follow a few simple steps, your child will be potty trained and accident-free in two days. Despite your enthusiasm, however, six months have passed and your daughter still never tells you when she has to go, which results in frequent and embarrassing accidents.
Or maybe you have a group of friends whose sons and daughters, they claim, “potty trained themselves.” You expect the same ease with your own son, who is the same age as your friends’ children, so you begin bringing him into the bathroom every half hour. You throw Cheerios in the potty to turn using the bathroom into a game. You promise he can watch his favorite cartoon if he uses the bathroom the next time he has to go. When he continues to have frequent accidents and shows no interest in the bathroom, you feel frustrated and turn to the Internet for answers, where you find a lot of information about children being potty trained by a certain age, something that only serves to heighten your anxiety about potty training.
Let me help you.
After having made every mistake under the sun when it came to potty training, I finally learned my lesson. I’m not an authority, but I did turn to Janet Lansbury (again), whom I consider an actual authority. For some women, what I missed will seem painfully obvious, but for others—and I’m convinced there are others—the obvious has eluded them entirely.
- Relax. I had a lot of expectations, both about how early my daughter would be ready to start using the bathroom and how long it would take. I started potty training her at 22 months, which is pretty early for a lot of children. The single most important thing that I learned from Janet Lansbury's blog is that a child is ready to start potty training when he or she is already doing it. You can make the potty available, but the child really needs to take it from there. It’s dangerous to insist that your child gives up diapers simply because he or she is a certain age. Once I read this, I was able to let go of my expectations, release my anxiety, and try a more relaxed approach, something I hadn’t been able to do previously. Before learning this, I felt, if not thought, that any setback in potty training was a clear sign of my ineptitude.
- Don’t try to trick her. Get rid of the potty charts and stickers and toys—any gimmick you’re using to coax your child into using the potty. This kind of manipulation undercuts direct, honest communication. It also establishes a pattern of “good” versus “bad.” Your child will only get a sticker or toy when she uses the potty, so what does that mean when she has an accident, something that she may not be able to control physically or emotionally?
- Stop asking if she has to go. Between my husband and me, we were probably asking our daughter twenty or thirty times a day, when, in many cases, even once would have been too much. Some children react poorly to that kind of pressure, and the asking can feel like forcing, which, in our case, we were. We didn’t want her to have an accident on our couch or carpet. The other problem with asking too frequently is that it prevents the child from listening to her own body. What my husband and I should’ve done, and what we eventually did do, is if it had been a while since she’d last used the bathroom, we’d have her play in the kitchen, where we have hardwood, so that it’d be easier to clean up if she did have an accident. Once she went to the bathroom, she could have free rein of the house again.
- Tone it down. Being too demonstrative when she uses the bathroom the way you want her to can put undue pressure on her. Not only do we have to consider what it means for her if she can’t do it, but we also have to consider how a high level of intensity can feel like an attempt to rob her of control over her own body.
- Be careful about how you react to an accident. At one point, after a few months of feeling frustrated about how long it was taking to potty train her, my husband and I decided that if she had an accident at the playground, for example, we would leave and let her know that her behavior was unacceptable. We felt that she needed to learn that she couldn’t just have an accident and continue playing. This is my most regrettable oversight. By enforcing a punishment, we most likely caused her to feel guilt and shame over something she may not have been able to control. It may not always be possible to allow her to continue playing wherever she is when she has an accident, but now I always keep extra clothes on hand and try to just clean her up and allow her to return to the activity.
I was inconsistent in my approach. I took her accidents personally. I was disrespectful in the way that I treated her. And I created a power struggle—one that I could never win. Most of all, I was ignorant about how to handle this major milestone in a child’s early life. I hope that other well-meaning but terribly misguided parents can learn from the mistakes that I made. Some kids are immune to our harassment surrounding potty training, but others can be very sensitive, and not having a game plan that allows the child to have control can create problems that carry over even into adulthood. For more guidance, see the links below. Happy flushing!