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Potty-training: What's the Best Age?

How old is too old for diapers? Noelle Howey has a terrific article up on Babble today about her four-year-old son. He’s still in diapers, and both mother and child are cool with this.

Noelle expresses regret about the amount of landfill waste her son’s pull-ups produce, but otherwise she’s happy to let him poop in his pants until he’s good and ready to use the toilet.

Normally, I’m a crusader for more relaxed parenting. I’d love to see everyone lighten up about just about every aspect of it. Stop worrying so much about what your kids eat, when they sleep, how they learn, who they play with.

But this is one laissez-faire parenting move that just pushes my buttons. I liked Noelle’s piece, and her attitude suggests I’d love the way she raises her kids. Yet I’m going to have to respectfully urge everyone reading this not to follow her example.

I’m a huge fan of infant potty training. Both my kids were out of diapers by their second birthdays, the youngest before she was 18 months old. I didn’t rush them or reward them. I just offered them the potty as soon as they started to seem curious about it, and stopped putting diapers on them as soon as they used it.

This is, in my not at all humble opinion, how it should be. Most people throughout human history, and most people alive in the world today, learned to use the potty as soon as they were able to walk.

Long-term diapering is a modern American invention, an artifact of cheap disposable diapers and busy schedules. It’s become more convenient for parents to keep our children in diapers for years than it is to take a few intense days to help them learn to follow their body cues and use a potty.

I don’t think there are any long-term health issues for kids who potty train late. I share Noelle’s certainty that her son will not be wearing diapers in middle school. He’s missed the window where natural curiosity and body development urges toddlers to potty train, but he’ll decide he wants to do it and be able to learn it quickly when he’s ready.

As an individual parenting choice, this is fine. But we have a whole culture that treats 3 and 4 year old kids wearing diapers as normal, and an industry that markets diapers for these children. The Clean Air Council lays out the sober facts about this cultural trend:

An average child will use between 8,000 -10,000 disposable diapers ($2,000 worth) before being potty trained. Each year, parents and babysitters dispose of about 18 billion of these items. In the United States alone these single-use items consume nearly 100,000 tons of plastic and 800,000 tons of tree pulp. We will pay an average of $350 million annually to deal with their disposal and, to top it off, these diapers will still be in the landfill 300 years from now. Americans throw away 570 diapers per second. That’s 49 million diapers per day.

There is no excuse for this. We are creating tons of waste that will take hundreds of years to degrade, rather than assume responsibility for teaching our young children some basic self-care.

I’m not calling out any individual parent on this. We inherited this mess from our parents, who enthusiastically bought the crap disposable diaper companies were selling. Our lives and social norms have evolved to a place where sending your kid to preschool in a diaper is the normal thing to do, and for many of us it’s what our work schedules and other constraints have required. Who has time to sit at home with a toddler for a week and play potty games all day?

So I get how we got here, but it’s time to stop. Our planet can’t afford four years of diapers for every child, and neither can we. As parents, we shouldn’t be on the hook for changing our four-year-olds diapers any more than we should be on the hook for spoon-feeding them. Except in a few cases of medical complications or physical limitations, kids are developmentally ready to use the toilet quite young. Certainly before their 4th birthday.

How old were your kids when they potty-trained? Did you have to push them along or did they do it on their own?

Photo: Sierra Black

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