Potty Trained or Parent Trained?

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: