I’ve been wondering if I’m a terrible parent lately because my daughter isn’t housebroken yet. My folks keep hinting in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that it’s about time she uses the potty. According to them, I was well past diapers by her age.
I’ve noticed the Baby Boomers put a lot of value on early potty training, as though it were evidence of potential child prodigies. Milestones in general seem important in the parenting world… when did your baby start crawling? Walking? Speaking? The thinking seems to be that if your child walks or talks earlier than most, then he or she is a quick learner, obviously highly intelligent, and therefore bound for great success. Hugo was potty trained by six months and walking by seven? Holy crap, that kid might cure cancer someday!
With all this boasting, it’s easy to start feeling inadequate (two years old and still not potty trained? Hope she’s not slow). Worried that my little girl was falling behind her peers, I decided to buckle down and start potty training…
So we tried. And tried. And tried some more. Epic fail.
I thought Brontë might be more interested in using the potty if she picked out her own, so we got her Elmo and a Minnie Mouse potties (one for each story of our house) that make music. She loves Elmo, Minnie Mouse, and music. I told her all about how babies wear diapers and to be a big girl, she could start using a big girl potty. She looks at me like I had clearly lost my mind.
Not easily discouraged, I started reading her books about using the potty at story time because she loves story time and gives it her full attention. She seemed curious about the toilet saga, but whenever I asked her to sit on the potty, she screamed “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” like I had just told her to pour lemon juice in her eyes. I tried giving her candy and/or stickers just for sitting on the potty a few minutes. She learned to sit for a couple minutes before demanding chocolate, but that was it.
I tried leaving her naked in the backyard for hours then rushing her over to the potty whenever she started to go. This resulted in nothing more than a lot of frustration and cleanup sessions.
Potty training was causing us a lot of grief. Brontë felt like she was letting me down and I was at my wit’s end. I decided to forget about it for a couple months, then try again.
The next round didn’t go much better. Baffled, I turned to friends for advice and was given a book about potty training your child in three days or less. Apparently it worked for my friend, which was hardly a surprise. She is one of those Type A, super efficient, direct women that sets her sights on a project then plows through it like a pitbull on PCP. She probably didn’t even need the book. She probably potty-trained her kids in six hours just by looking at them a certain way.
My attempts to potty train in three days or less, however, turned into a three day power struggle from Hell. Completely at my wit’s end, I started wondering whether it was realistic to potty train her at that point and whether it really even mattered. It’s not like she could put it on her resume.
So, I started doing some research. Turns out, Baby Boomers potty attitudes are actually much mellower than those of previous generations. People used to be downright scary about potty training.
In the 1920’s and 30’s, people thought bowel control was the supreme mark of your child’s moral character and your worth as a mother. Experts believed that children who wouldn’t go to the bathroom on command were doing it on purpose, and letting them get away with it would set them on a lifelong course of disobedience and moral deviancy. In 1932, the government issued an official manual, Infant Care, that instructed parents to start potty training by three months and complete it by six to eight months using any means necessary. Parents were advised to use soap stick suppositories on babies that were just a couple months old to get them used to going to the bathroom on a rigid schedule (shudder). Back then, parents would beat their kids for not using the potty, believing they were being disobedient.
Later, Freud traced some psychological problems back to rigid potty training (you think!?). Of course, Freud thought withholding bowel movements (“anal retentiveness”) was part of a power struggle that creates future control freaks, whereas I’m thinking being beaten by your parents for not going to the bathroom on command will just flat mess you up. Society later softened somewhat from these rigid methods, but still put a lot of weight on how early a child used the potty. In the 1970’s, early training was part of the general drive to make kids independent as soon as possible.
Nowadays, it feels like early potty training is part of the overall drive toward competitive parenting, where we first hook kids up to Baby Einstein playlists in infancy then shuffle them around in soccer mom minivans from one after-school activity to the next in a mad dash to outcompete. Today, “late” potty training is probably viewed more as laziness than moral bankruptcy, but the pressure remains.
The French have a great saying that roughly translates to “you can’t dance faster than the music.” In our culture, however, we seem to believe that faster is better. I’m not so sure.
Experts now say that most children don’t have the physical capacity to control their bowels until sometime between 18 and 30 months. Many suggest that most kids start showing an interest in potty training around the time they become physically capable of it.
Like everything else in parenting, of course, no one agrees on the best method. Some believe earlier training is psychologically harmful, whereas others believe later training is problematic and takes longer. I personally tend to question belief systems that require a certain method or product that wouldn’t have been available for much of human history… did cave men know that 18 months or earlier was the optimal time for training? Did they stick to a schedule or have infants riddled with bowel difficulties for the rest of their lives? It’s hard for me to believe the entire human species was at a loss for proper bowel training until someone came up with the three-day-at-18-months method.
It kind of reminds me of how so many people are convinced infants need rice cereal to be healthy, even though rice cereal wouldn’t even have been available to most parents throughout human history, and is still unobtainable in many places.
I believe that, like so many other aspects of parenting, you’re better off watching your kid and trusting your instincts. If you give potty training a try and it all goes haywire, it’s probably best to try again later. If your kid has a medical problem that prevents him or her from using the potty, then stricter training isn’t going to solve it. Every child is different and what works for one kid isn’t necessarily best for the next.
And as far as falling behind his peers, well… don’t take all the early potty training boast to heart. When a culture believes early bowel control is the be-all, end-all sign of a gifted child and excellent parent, people tend to remember earlier success rates than they otherwise might. Maybe junior was hitting the potty by seven months, but continued to have a lot of accidents for the next couple years.
Hell, it’s easy to feel inadequate as a parent in general… you’re always either worried you’re not strict enough and will raise a felon, or that you’re too harsh and are crushing your little one’s spirit. No one really knows the correct answers.