Most parents do not think of fond, warm memories when looking back on potty training. For most, disinfectant and paper towels come to mind more quickly than the adorable little pairs of underwear and extra money in your bank account from not having to buy diapers. Whether you are a first time parent searching for a potty training system or a seasoned parent looking for a new method, this article is for you. This article is not a new “123” method for training, rather it is an argument for ditching the programs, systems, and potty training weekends all together. Instead, it will explore how to scaffold the larger job of potty training into several smaller tasks, allowing the child plenty of time to master each before moving on, resulting in reduced stress and mess for parent and child.
Modern Misconceptions on Potty Training
My first child is a bright kid (really, it is just more than just mother-googles!). And while intellectual development comes quickly and easily, other areas are very challenging, including learning to use the potty. Nearing his third birthday, I did everything any first-time parent would do: I researched, checked out books from the library, spoke with experienced parents and accumulated all the advice, movies, books and reward charts I could find. I, being the type-A gal that I am, liked the idea of getting potty training out of the way and so I declared one cold winter weekend our “potty weekend” and went about having our “potty party”. It was a disaster. My son and I have never been more miserable and stressed out. The first time he had a bowel movement on the potty he cried hysterically, not from joy, but from fear. While his proud father and I looked on in acclamation and admiration, he sobbed and fell to pieces. Why did potty training not go according to plan? He was almost 3 years old and expressing interest in potty themes. According to the potty books, it was time!
The primary problem was my expectations. I allowed the “potty professionals” to convince me that a child can be trained to use the potty quickly and efficiently using behavior modification (much like you might use for a puppy or kitten). I had forgotten the classics, Vygotsky and Piaget, and instead clung to the modern potty heroes, Crane and Caravella (Potty Train Your Child In Just One Day). Granted, there are children out there who respond very well to intensive behavior modification and can be potty trained in “just one day”, but these children are statistically rare. There are very good reasons to need to push a quick potty training regimine (finances, school/day care requirements, travel, etc…), so don’t come down too hard on yourself if you do need to pick up a book on how to accomplish potty training pronto. (After all, an Intelligent Nest is a balanced, guilt-free nest that takes into account the needs of parents and children.) If there is not a looming deadline for potty training, then I urge parents and caregivers to consider a gradual, scaffold approach to potty training that is more parent and child centered.
Potty training is very complicated and requires neurological, physical and psychological development prior to a child being able to successfully be accident free on a consistent basis. Most children (even “advanced” ones) will need months, if not an entire year, from the moment they begin to learn about using the potty to the time when they can accomplish accident-free toileting. Keep in mind that learning for young children requires numerous attempts and a lengthy trial and error period. Think about any major accomplishment you child has experienced so far in life. Did they learn to walk in one weekend? Did you decide when they should say “mama” and begin and intensive speaking regimen to elicit “mama” from your child in one weekend? Did you expect your child to be able to eat from a spoon, without mess, within a week of learning to eat? These expectation would be ridiculous. Why is potty training any different? Think about your process for using the bathroom. You have to feel a sensation and estimate the timing and urgency of your sensation before knowing how and when to meet your body’s needs. Then think about the muscles involved in accomplishing holding and releasing your body’s waste product and all the steps that come in between (removing clothing, fixing the toilet to the right setting, shutting the door, sitting on the toilet in the right way to avoid a mess, etc…). Using the toilet is very complicated, but adults have had so much practice that it is easy for us to forget all the steps involved and to lump toilet training into one simple skill.
Toilet training is heavily regulated by human psychology. Children are more open with their anxiety related to toileting than adults and so it is easy for adults to feel frustrated why children do not meet their expectations related to a child’s willingness to try potty training. Consider how you feel about using the bathroom during travel or in an porta-potty. Perhaps you avoid using the bathroom all together or are unable to relieve yourself despite your discomfort. Adults are not as far from children in experiencing anxiety related to toileting as we like to believe. Children are use to and comfortable with eliminating in diapers. Demands to eliminate in a completely different way, position and place can cause anxiety. Anxiety can deter even the most capable child from potty training quickly and successfully.
Therefore, set reasonable expectations. Don’t expect your potty training experience to be by the book. Instead expect that your child’s feelings towards the potty may change moment to moment. Every child is so different and their responses to potty training can be surprising. Don’t expect your child to be excited about using the potty just like a “big boy” or “big girl”. Some children will be thrilled and learn quickly and some will be terrified and need lots of time to adjust. If you are looking for an approximate estimation, give your child between two weeks to one year to learn. That means if your preschool of choice doesn’t change diapers, start potty training a year prior.
One of Jean Piaget’s (20th century developmental theorist) contributions to child development was in alerting adults that children do not develop linearly. Instead, children advance quickly at times and then regress steeply at others. This means that once a child learns a new skill, they may be unwilling or unable to demonstrate the same skill the following week. In short, regression is a function of normal anxiety related to developmental progression. Young children are transitioning from infancy to childhood and experience a great deal of guilt, fear, apprehension, excitement, etc… in the transition. A toddler’s willingness to become a child will change day to day and regression should be expected during the times that children are experiencing external stressors (adding a new sibling, family issues, starting school, moving, etc…). Potty training (especially when using a quick method) is a major external stressor and can cause a great deal of anxiety for children. Every child responds differently. Some children will excel in potty training, but may regress in other areas during the transition to compensate. Other children will resist potty training completely. And then there are children who will show no signs of external anxiety at all.
What should potty training look like… what should I do?
Lev Vygotsky (another 20th century developmental theorist) was known for his concept called “Zone of Proximal Development” or ZPD. He studied children and found that while children can learn new concepts well on their own, adults and peers can be useful in helping children achieve new learning that would not be possible without instruction. The difference between the most difficult task a child can do completely independently and the most difficult task they can do with instruction is known as the ZPD. Let’s apply Vygotsky’s theories to potty training. Potty training is the “difficult task”. Let’s also assume that children will not be able to potty training completely independently and therefore others are required to help children scaffold (another term Vysgotsky introduced) their learning process. Scaffolding refers to using adults and peers to add to a child’s learning process by observing the child to see where he is struggling and providing support, assistance and demonstration to help the child get to the next step. It would then follow that we should scaffold the larger task of potty training into smaller steps. In this model a parent’s job will be observe their children and structure learning experiences, gradually, scaffolding the large job of using the toilet without error into smaller tasks that the child can accomplish one at a time.
Scaffolding Potty Training
The first step in potty training is to expose the child to the tools and process. When your child can comprehend the need to use the potty, you can bring them along into the potty with you and show them how to use the potty. You can buy a small potty to play with and practice on. You can rent/buy a potty video or books for small children that help to break the process down with kid-friendly pictures and words. Vygotsky would support exposing them to other toddlers and young children who use the potty, as children learn well from watching their peers. (This is why younger siblings often have an easier time learning to use the potty.) Boys should be able to watch boys/men use the toilet and girls need to be able to watch girls/women.
When your child expresses interest in trying the potty, drop what you are doing and go with it! Let them sit on the big potty, a potty seat on the big potty or on their kid-size potty. Don’t expect them to pull their diaper off or pants down. Just place them on the potty fully clothed.
The next step in scaffolding potty training is to convince or allow (depending upon temperament) your child to try the potty bear-bottomed. They do not need to produce any excrement, they just need to acclimate themselves to sitting on the potty bear-bottomed (the toilet seat feels a bit funny at first!). If you are fan of using rewards (bribes, however you phrase it… and I am!) then it is good to give a small reward during this stage just for sitting on the potty for a minute bear-bottomed.
When your child demonstrates comfort and ease with sitting on the potty bear-bottomed, then move on. Begin encouraging them to push and try to make pee-pee or poo-poo in the potty. Run the water in the sink or show them how you try. Give them lots of time to learn this step. It is really hard to learn to control the muscles and parts involved in eliminating. After-all, up to this point, toddlers typically do not eliminate intentionally. In their mind, the pee-pee and poo-poo just show up. Phrase it as “telling”, “pushing” or “making” the pee-pee and poo-poo come out of their body, as it is not always apparent where the mess is coming from in a child’s young mind. Discuss their many orifices and avoid any language that would make them feel shameful. Our family loves the Once Upon the Potty books as they do a wonderful job of explaining body parts and potty processes without shame or awkward scientific language. Keep in mind, this part of the process requires children to be able to touch, look and explore their body parts. Up to now, these parts were always covered in a diaper. How interesting to have access to this part of themselves and be in control of it. Pee will typically come first and require less learning. A child must be able to express discomfort with wet underwear/pants prior to being able to ditch diapers. A child may be able to pee in the potty on command before it matters to them if they actually make it to the potty. There can be a difference in gender preferences toward clean, dry pants. Often boys are not bothered by messes as much as girls, but this is not always the case. Bowel movements often require a great deal of time to learn to do on command. It is OK for children to do this in pull-ups or diapers for awhile after potty training success with pee. No need push wearing underpants all day during this part of scaffolding potty training. Toddlers are not really ready for underwear until they can demonstrate the ability/desire to avoid wet pants and make a good effort to get to the potty in time. Pull-ups are really fabulous and offer a transitional cover during this lengthy step in the scaffolding. Keep in mind accidents upset children as much as they can upset adults and may cause regression. Then again, some children need the push of experiencing a mess to motivate themselves to get to the next step. As the parent, you will need to decide what is best for your child.
After a child can pee and poop into a potty on command, then work on learning how to regulate the need to go so they can avoid accidents. This step requires a certain maturity, self-awareness and ability to estimate time and urgency. A small child has a very limited ability to understand time. The sensations that tell you to find a toilet come in different degrees. You learn the degrees of urgency and estimate how much time you have until you loose control of your ability to hold it in. A young child has a very difficult time doing this and requires much practice before they can do this well. You will need to remind the child every 20 to 30 minutes to try the potty. This is exhausting for the parent and child. It interrupts the flow and fun of life and can wear on your patience and your child’s willingness to go along with potty training. I recommend working on wearing underwear or pull-ups and doing reminders in short bursts. Perhaps you are home one morning: do “potty-training” intentionally for a morning; use a diaper during naptime; take a break and go to the park in the afternoon with a pull-up. This helps to prevent burn-out for parent and child. Perhaps your child is having a bad-day, they woke up cranky and irritable. Throw potty training out the window. You wouldn’t teach a child to read when they are in a bad mood, why would you teach them to toilet? Encourage and provide guided potty practice when it works for you and your child. The breaks will not confuse them. Children don’t see learning in this way. They are more focused on the here and now than they are on the big picture. Taking breaks will make potty training take longer, but it will be less stressful, messy and more positive. Breaks can act to shorten potty training in children with apprehensive temperaments because it offers time to process their anxieties and eases unneeded pressure.
After your child can find and use the potty successfully, you will need to teach the child to prep their potty, pulling their pants down, placing the potty seat on the toilet or lifting the lid, climbing a step-stool and onto the potty seat. This takes practice and depending upon your set-up can be a lengthy process for a child. Save this step for last as it is the least important in terms of the child’s development. Often, little fingers are not ready to tackle buttons and zippers on pants, but let them try their best and offer help and assistance when they ask.
Keep in mind that as you scaffold the process of potty training, your child will need different degrees of assistance/demonstration from you or peers to make it to the next step. Some steps will be easy for them and other’s will be more challenging. Their ZPD will vary. Through observation and guided instruction you will be able to help them master each step, and scaffold their learning to accomplish successful use of the potty. Don’t wait to congratulate yourself or your child until they master the potty completely, mastering each scaffolded step along the way is a success and deserves recognition.
Eventually, your child will use the potty when they sense they need to. It may take a child one year and an other child in the same family only two weeks. Give each child the time and space they need to choose the potty. Forcing potty training in a crash course method can cause a child and parent undue stress and can end up prolonging potty training. Instead, scaffold this big leap in development by allowing plenty of time to successfully learn each step in the process. Your child will regress at some point and try to cling to their infancy. Instead expressing frustration with the regression, allow your child to regress as this is an important part of the process. Being a baby is boring, your child will meet their emotional needs to explore infancy through regression and will tire of it soon. Barring developmental delays, all children learn to use the potty. They will succeed, but it is important they do so on their own terms. Good luck!
Great Potty Products
Once Upon a Potty— by Alona Frankel — DVDs and books for boys and girls
Everyone Poops— book by Taro Gomi
A Potty for Me!— book by Karen Katz — discusses potty apprehension and is a guide for learning to try
Bjorn Potty Trainer, Potty Chair and Potty Stool- All excellent products that work well, fit on the potty and clean-up easily (and are easier on the eyes than most comparable products).