Young children are generally eager to learn and grow, and will move naturally toward new stages of development with the support of the adults in their environment. Parents can best help children between the ages of three and five by providing the memory cues necessary to learn a new skill, while still allowing for the strong urge to “do it myself.”
Your four-year-old may resist being placed physically on the potty, for example—a technique that works well for many younger toddlers—but respond to a verbal reminder (“Lunch is over. Now, what’s next?”) that offers her a chance to respond successfully (“Potty time!”) and go to the bathroom on her own.
By helping your child picture what she wants to do, plan how to accomplish her goal, and carry through successfully, you can allow her to teach herself to use the potty. In the process, she will learn that she can achieve the goals she sets for herself, and her self-confidence will increase accordingly.
Of course, many children—even three- and four-year-olds—are content to remain in diapers long after their parents have decided it’s time for a change. If you have waited until now to toilet-train in the hope that your child will initiate the process but have yet to see any interest on her part, there is no harm in nudging her along in positive ways. You might start by helping her identify the issue (“Look—Chloe and Ann use the potty now.”) and formulate a goal (“Do you want to learn to use a potty, too?”). If she still fails to respond, point out occasionally that someone she admires uses a toilet instead of a diaper, show her the big-kid underwear at a store and ask her if she’d like some for herself, or remove her diaper while she’s playing, set a potty nearby, and let her make a game out of using it.
These attempts may not “take” the first, second, or third time you try them, but eventually your child will get the idea. (At no time should you try teasing or criticizing her for not responding to your suggestions. Such negative approaches not only backfire in practical terms but can damage your young child’s self-esteem.) Keep in mind that a reluctant child may simply be waiting for more direction—for you to take the next step by helping her create and carry out a plan.
“I remember when I first learned to use a potty,” one parent said (not entirely truthfully) to her attentive daughter. “I didn’t know how to do it at first. But my mom helped me remember when it was time to go and she showed me where the potty was. She let me put a bit of toilet paper in the potty and try to get it wet with my pee. It was fun. Do you want to try?”
Preschoolers love to hear stories about their parents. Talking to your child in a personal way about bathroom use is a good way to support her both cognitively and emotionally. By reassuring her that you’ve been there, too, and reviewing the steps you took to learn to use the potty, you demonstrate that she will be able to achieve her goals also.
Whether you tell your child a similar story or just suggest a straightforward plan of action for beginning toilet training (“How about wearing that pretty princess underwear today? Don’t worry about getting it wet. We’ll pay attention to when you need to pee and I’ll help you get to the bathroom in time.”), your child will welcome your help in laying out the steps she needs to follow.
Once you have created a game plan with your child, it’s important to follow through consistently. You may have remarked to her, for example, that you usually need to use the bathroom after meals and before bedtime, and the two of you have agreed that she will try that, too. If so, be ready to remind her to sit on the potty at each of these times if necessary and accompany her there if she is hesitant to go. You may need to exert a little pressure to get her to stick to a plan she’s agreed to. Refusing a treat until she’s completed this chore demonstrates that this responsibility must be met—just like brushing her teeth and taking a bath.
Since your goal is to help your child move from being reminded to use the potty toward recognizing and addressing the need on her own, it makes sense to support her efforts further by offering helpful tips along the way. Just as you would with a younger child, teach her to be aware of the signals her body gives her and to use them as spurs to action: “Joanne, you’re squirming around a lot. Does your tummy feel funny? That means you need to pee.” Remind her of what needs to be done to succeed at this skill: “I know it’s hard to stop playing when you’re having so much fun, but when you need to use the potty, it’s important to go right away. Come on, I’ll help you.”
Support her in unfamiliar situations: “If you need to use the potty at Sandy’s house, tell her mommy and she’ll show you where it is.” Point out how much better she feels after she’s used the potty and how nice it is to know she won’t wet her pants this time. Like a coach encouraging a player to perform well, your goal is not to control her learning process by constantly directing her, but to “spot” her by making suggestions when necessary and by cheering her on.
One of the strongest motivating forces for a preschooler mastering a new skill is his parents’ praise. When your child succeeds at any of the steps involved in toilet training—picturing a goal (“I wanna wear underwear like Daddy!”), creating a plan (“If I have to go, I call you.”), or actually achieving his goal (“Daddy, look, I did it!”)—be sure to reinforce his feelings of satisfaction with a hug and a kiss. Restate his achievement (“Look at that, Ronnie, you pooped in the potty!”) and let him know he should feel good about it (“You must feel proud.”). Finally, express your own satisfaction clearly by letting him hear you report his success to others in the family (“Guess what Ronnie did today? He pooped in the potty—just like Sam.”) and even offering him a small reward such as candy or a gold star on his “potty chart.”
When accidents occur, let him accept responsibility for this experience as well by asking him to help you clean up (if he resists, calmly insist that he comply). Such natural consequences of his own actions motivate him to try harder and are much more effective than criticism or anger in the long run.