Around the time my son turned two, we ordered a little potty chair, shopped for dinosaur undies, and started rotating Everybody Poops into the mix of bedtime stories. I didn’t know much about the different methods of toilet training, but I had a loose idea of how it was supposed to go – wait until he showed interest, follow his lead, be encouraging. Definitely don’t push.
In other words, follow a child-directed approach and wait for “readiness cues.” This is the most widely used concept for toilet training in this country, established decades ago by pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and used to guide the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations. Don’t start too soon and let the child be the one in control, or it could cause anxiety and hurt his self-esteem.
But when our family got into the swing of potty training and I looked at it critically, this philosophy didn’t make sense. Who imbued the potty with emotional significance in the first place? And why would I wait for my perfectly happy diaper-clad child – super absorbent dry bum and all – to decide when he was ready for the toilet?
As a grad student in clinical psychology I learned that toilet training was a delicate affair. It was an important part of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, and it filtered into popular psychological thinking thereafter. Freud said that how parents handle this critical phase of life – teaching a child to manage his bowels – was of lasting consequence. Too pushy or strict about it and the child might become anxious and uptight (the origin of the term “anal retentive”), too lenient and unstructured and the child could grow up with a chaotic, disorganized personality.
Most of us aren’t thinking about Freud when we go to buy training diapers, but his seminal idea – that there is something of inherent emotional significance about a child learning to control his pee and poop – is something that has stuck with us through the century.
In the 1960s, it took a step forward when Brazelton presented the readiness philosophy of potty training – partly in response to the more strict Watson-inspired behavioral approaches applied to potty training (and all aspects of child-rearing) in the preceding era. No more harsh punishments and parent-driven regimes for children, said Brazelton – mom and dad should take a back seat and let the child dictate when he feels comfortable making the transition out of diapers. This was crucial to developing healthy self-esteem and a well-adjusted personality. It was okay to start if, for example, the child was willing, showed interest, was uncomfortable with wet diapers, and could walk to the bathroom and undress.
Considering the rigidity of the Watson method, it was good that parents listened. Potty training became a less stressful event for everyone, with most parents waiting until 18 to 24 months and using positive encouragement and a more loving approach.
Somewhere along the way, though, I think we took it too far. Over the decades, the age of potty training has gotten later and later – in the first half of the 19th century most kids were using the toilet by age one, in the 1970s the average age to start was 18 months, and now it’s between 24 and 30 months, with many kids in diapers well into their fourth year.
But my gripe with the child-led approach is not the when of potty training – it’s the how. I know moms who happily started their babies on the toilet at six months and equally happy parents who started at three years. For me, the issue lies in the philosophy itself. “Readiness cues” are presented as a natural, inherent part of development – as if the child hits a certain biological or psychological milestone and then it’s the right time.
But diapers are a modern invention. They keep life comfortable and dry, making it fully possible for a preschooler to keep right on playing and peeing at the same time. What’s the incentive to pro-actively seek out the potty? And infant development research shows that tinkling comes under conscious control earlier than most of us think – it’s not a simple, uncontrolled reflex.
The other part of the readiness approach that doesn’t fit for me as a parent is that we should take a back seat and ask – never insist – that a child use the toilet. The first time the issue came up in our house was when the novelty of the new shiny potty seat had worn off and my son decided he had better things to do with this time. “No! I don’t have any pee pee!” he would assert. I was pretty sure his bladder was full of fruit smoothie, but I didn’t want to trip some deep-seated psychological wire or put a dent in his self-confidence.
But wait. Why is insisting that our children sit on the potty any different than telling them they have to sit down for a meal? Obviously, we don’t force them to actually go, just like we don’t force them to actually eat. We just provide the framework. I don’t think his self-esteem is on the line – I’m pretty sure my son just doesn’t want to stop launching paper airplanes or operating his side-loading garbage truck to break for the bathroom.
So I’ve opted for a parent-led approach. He’s running around in undies most of the time at home, because I think diapers and absorbent training pants can interfere with the learning process. I could tell the first time he had an accident he was clearly confused: Why didn’t the pee just magically get whisked away? But with no diaper, he’s learning pretty quick how his body works. I have to remind him to sit on the potty pretty frequently, but again, I remind him to eat, put on shoes, clean his toys: what’s the difference?
For me, letting go of the readiness idea was liberating. I love Dr. Brazelton – I saw him speak at a conference not too long ago, and his warm, empathetic approach really speaks to me as a parent. But when it comes to the potty, I have to go my separate way.