Potty Trained or Parent Trained?

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by Jody Pawel

Wherever I go, potty training is a hot topic. There is hardly a workshop, presentation, or radio call-in advice show I do that a parent doesn't ask about a potty training problem.

I have to confess that potty training is my least favorite parenting topic, because this natural process seems to be unnecessarily complicated and causes a lot of frustration for parents. There is also no research that proves any one particular potty training method consistently and reliably works with all children in a guaranteed specific amount of time. (Yes, I've read those "potty training in a day" books and they didn’t work for me and a lot of other parents. In fact, sometimes the tactics backfired.)

When I combine my knowledge of child development, psychology and family dynamics with my experience working with thousands of parents the past 25 years, I see clear patterns emerge. By sharing these insights with you, I hope you can make an informed decision about how you want to handle potty training.

First, do you realize that going potty actually takes 10 steps and 14 tasks?

  1. Realize you have to go (1 task)
  2. Get to the potty in time (1 task)
  3. Undo buttons and zippers and pull pants and underwear down in time (up to 4 tasks)
  4. Lift the seat or get onto the potty without falling in (1 task)
  5. Aim accurately or be sure everything that comes out goes in the potty (1 task)
  6. Reach the toilet paper without losing your balance or falling off (1 task)
  7. Wipe all the residue off and drop the paper in the toilet (1 task)
  8. Get off the potty and pull up your pants and underwear and redo buttons and zippers (up to 4 tasks)
  9. Flush the toilet and maybe close the lid or put the seat down (up to 2 tasks)
  10. Wash hands with soap and water (1 task)

Children aren't fully "potty-trained" until they do all the steps and tasks independently. How the child learns the process is controversial, because no one approach offers consistent results. There are two key factors that influence how fast and successful potty training will occur: the parent's approach and the child's reaction to that approach.

There is a broad range of potty training approaches:

At one extreme, parents may be totally unconcerned with potty training and assume children will eventually learn to go on their own, with little or no parental effort. You would think this approach takes the longest, but it doesn’t.

Another approach is when parents teach the child in a relaxed unhurried way. They patiently teach the child the different tasks and steps, provide role models for the child, have realistic expectations, and handle the entire process in a very matter-of-fact, calm manner. As the child progresses, the parent expresses confidence in the child's ability, verbally acknowledges the child's efforts, and focuses on independence and hygiene as the rewards for accomplishing the task. This approach is the most effective and physically and emotionally healthy. It just seems to take the longest, because parents are paying attention to the process and can become impatient if the child takes longer to learn than they would prefer.

A more controlling approach involves parents watching, reminding, bribing, and rewarding the child with stickers and candy. While this approach can get fast results, it carries a high risk of initiating power struggles, which can lead to bigger problems.

The most extreme controlling approach is for parents to do all the thinking and work for the child, from birth. These parents devote themselves to watching the child for cues that they need to go and then dropping whatever they are doing to rush the child to a location where they can relieve themselves. A recent Associated Press report quoted several parents who use this approach. One carried her child to a tree to pee and another held her baby over a sink in a public bathroom! This approach doesn’t actually train the child and it violates several universal effective-parenting principles. But if you do choose to use it at least put the baby on a toilet!

Now all of these methods can work, but none can guarantee results, because each child is different. For example:

• Children differ in their readiness and ability to understand and perform the steps and tasks.

• Children's personalities influence whether they want to please their parents or be independent, feel encouraged or manipulated, will blindly obey or rebel against control.

• Some children relax and go with the flow while other children hold out and hold on, literally, even if they develop medical problems in the process.

So it really boils down to this: no matter what techniques, tactics and tricks a parent tries, a child’s intellectual, psychological and emotional makeup will determine the speed and success of potty training. There are no fully-functioning adults who aren’t potty trained, so eventually everyone learns this skill. In fact, unless a child has a medical condition or bad potty-training experience, all children will potty train themselves by kindergarten.

Furthermore, it is pretty much impossible for any child to be completely potty trained (totally independent and self-responsible) before 18 months old and unlikely before the age of two-and-a-half. Here's why:

Children cannot control the sphincter muscle (responsible for holding/releasing bowel movements) until they are at least eighteen months old. The muscle doesn't have that ability until that age. So anything that happens before that age is because the parent is trained, not the child.

Remember those ten steps and 14 tasks? Well #7 is wiping oneself, which isn't even physiologically possibly until a child's arm has grown long enough to reach his or her behind! Most children who are on-track developmentally will be able to do this task independently by kindergarten. So that means that no matter what method you use, your child still won’t be able to perform this final step of potty training independently until about the same age as every other child.

So don't feel inferior when some mother compares her so-called potty trained baby to your training-in-progress toddler. Just smile, knowing both children will complete the learning process about the same time no matter what the parent does...and some methods are healthier and riskier than others.

Yes, children consistently prove to us that ultimately their bodies are within their control. We can lead them to a potty but we really can't make them go.

So the choice is yours. How much time, attention, effort, and emotion do you want to invest in this? Unlike most "returns on investments" (ROIs), the more you invest in this process -- by making it a "big deal" -- the more it actually increases your risk of experiencing problems. Since every child will eventually do this naturally, your choice is whether to give encouragement or try to control the child.

Anytime potty training has become a big issue, you will usually find one of two things: Either the child had a bad experience and is fearful of going potty or the child felt the parent was too controlling and they are now in a battle of wills. Both can cause children to hold onto their waste to the point of developing a chronic medical condition! These problems take the longest to resolve and require medical assistance. It's not uncommon for these children to still not be fully potty trained by kindergarten.

Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is a second-generation parent educator and president of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting. She is the author of 100+ resources for parents and family service professionals, including her award-winning book, The Parent's Toolshop at Parent's Toolshop® Consulting, Ltd. Since 1980, Jody has trained parents and professionals through her dynamic presentations and served as internationally recognized parenting expert to the media worldwide. Get practical parenting resources, including more information about this topic at Parent's Toolshop®'s archive.

Copyright © Jody Johnston Pawel. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC. Image © Jordi Delgado.