Four Tips for Potty Training

Toilet training 


My three-year-old just ran past me, chanting, “Pee-pee, don’t come out yet! Don’t come out yet, Pee-pee!” He’s in the bathroom now, and hopefully all is going well.


His recent transition to fully potty-trained boy means that now the entire household is using the toilet. Yay us! Although my husband does say that the boys’ bathroom will still smell like pee for, well, forever.


As joyful as I am about my two boys’ toilet-trained status, I can’t take the credit for this accomplishment. In fact, I’m not sure that it’s accurate to say that parents potty-train their kids. My potty-training philosophy is that the parents are less like managers or directors and more like support staff–setting up the equipment, making it handy, being on the spot to facilitate, and offering high-fives when the goal is accomplished. (After hand-washing, of course.)


In our case, the key elements were really just waiting until they were ready and then making the process as easy as possible.


Here are my four main tips.


1) Wait until they’re ready. The surest road to a couch cushion full of pee is to try to train them before they are ready. I was so concerned about my older son being trained in time for preschool that I kept trying to make it happen despite the fact that he showed no interest in the toilet whatsoever. After cleaning up mess after mess, I started panicking that he would never figure out this toilet thing. (Typical first child worries, I now think, being the oh-so-much-wiser mom of two that I am now… J) As he started preschool, I apologized to his teacher for his lack of bathroom abilities and she said firmly, “Just send him in his underwear with some changes of clothes in his backpack. He’ll be fine.”  Turned out he was fine. In fact, it was starting preschool that really did the trick for him. As he stood with the rest of his class in the bathroom line several times each day, he finally just decided he would do it too. (I really owe that teacher a muffin basket.)


I tried to remember this experience as my younger son got closer to 3. I started to talk to him about using the toilet every time I changed his diaper. “Next time, you can do this in the potty, right?” For a long time, his answer was, “No! I don’t want to pee-pee in the potty!” And I just said, “OK” and didn’t push it, smiling outwardly and inwardly reminding myself, You are an older, wiser mom of two now, and you know that they all get potty trained eventually! So what if there’s a girl who’s practically a newborn in his class who’s trained already–this is not a contest. IT IS NOT A CONTEST! 


I hesitantly brought up his refusal to use the toilet with his doctor at his 3-year-old checkup and she laughed at me. “Girls potty train on average at 2 1/2,” she told me, “but for boys, 3 1/2 is average. Wait until he’s ready.” That was good to hear. And meanwhile, I left that little training toilet in the bathroom where he could see it every day. Eventually he decided that he wanted to use it.


2) Rewards are OK. I try to stay away from rewards in general, after taking this parenting class that talked a lot about children learning to be internally rather than externally motivated. I’m on board with that idea, but here’s the thing: Rewards work.  So I just try to use them sparingly. The truth is that when it came to potty training, that M&M sure did work wonders for my younger son. He would look at me with a slightly cagey expression: “Mommy, if I pee-pee on the potty, do I get an M&M?” I would say, “Go, go to the potty!” And then he would run off, cackling.  After he proudly showed me his completed task and washed his hands, he got an M&M.


A lot of people worry that this reward system will last forever. (OK, I worried about this.) Let’s face it: I didn’t want to be standing outside the men’s restroom of the high school with a bag of M&Ms in hand. With my boys, we never outright declared that they didn’t get a reward anymore; we just stopped reminding them about it. After my older son really got the hang of it, he started forgetting to ask for the M&M. Even when he still asked for a M&M, I would just give it to him or try to change the subject and hope he forgot. Eventually he just didn’t ask anymore. My younger son still remembers to ask for the M&M but only about 50 percent of the time, and it’s only been a couple of months since he really nailed this no-diaper thing.


3) Sheer proximity of the equipment (by which I mean the toilet). That’s the great thing about those little potties, how easy it is to move them around. (Can I just say that I’m kind of sad that I have resorted to using the word “potty.” It just seems like such a yucky word. So squishy and babyish. But the kids seem to like this word, so I have just gone with it, in the hopes of phasing it out.)  Anyway, those little toilets are nice and portable, so you can just move them into any room or even your yard as needed.


So rather than suggest, “Hey, do you want to go use the potty?” you can just quietly move the potty right next to him or her. Sometimes non-verbal cues are so much more effective, especially if you have a child with a touch of stubborn. ( I have two.) With my younger son, I would notice him start to doing a potty-style dance move or even say, “The poo-poo hurts, Mommy!” I learned from experience that when I suggested that he go use the bathroom, he’d immediately say “No!” But if I got his little toilet from the bathroom and just set it near him, with the seat up–you know, invitingly–then he’d more often than not make his way over there and do his business. That way it felt more like his idea. (This is the key to a lot of parenting, in my opinion.)


4) Don’t expect it all to happen at once. Like everything with kids, toilet-training seems to happen in fits and starts, and not necessarily according to the parents’ schedule. My older son used his new potty literally minutes after we got it out of the box. I was so thrilled I took a picture of the filled basin. (Come on, parents, you know you’ve done it too!) I was thinking, I knew it! I have some kind of toilet-training genius on my hands here! But then he didn’t want anything to do with it again for almost a year. Whatever. He returned to the toilet eventually. And some kids want to pee in the toilet, but not poop. Or vice versa. My younger son was just about the only kid I know of who was happy to poop in the toilet well before he felt like peeing in it. Here’s where I tried to remember. You’re just support staff here, Mom. Just provide the equipment, make it handy, and then celebrate it when it happens.


Now if I could just convince my younger son that if you didn’t use soap, you didn’t actually wash your hands.

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