“We’ve only just started toilet-training our son, Andrew, and already I’m confused,” writes Linda, the mother of a two-year-old. “As far as I can tell, we’ve done everything right. Four weeks ago my husband and I bought Andrew his own potty, explained what it was, and put it in the bathroom. He didn’t show any interest in using it—except as a hat—and we were careful not to pressure him. But this morning when he woke up, I finally gave in to temptation and asked him if he might want to use the potty today. He looked at me and then started to cry! I couldn’t understand what I’d said to upset him. I didn’t know how to react, so I just gave him a hug and said, ‘Okay, honey, you don’t have to.’ But I wish someone could tell me what’s going on.”
If you are the parent of a young child in diapers, you may share Linda’s uncertainty over how best to begin toilet training. You are probably concerned about putting too much pressure on your child by starting too early, or letting him down by starting too late. You may be confused by conflicting advice in the media and from relatives and friends—telling you that you can toilet-train your child by his first birthday, or that you should wait until he is three or four; that you can “train in a day,” or that training should take place gradually over several months to a year; that a parent-enforced routine of regular potty sessions is the best way to train a child, or that it’s better to let the child decide when, where, and how he will go. As if this weren’t enough, your child’s own evolving urges and needs can suddenly derail even the simplest, most positive training program. Your family situation—marital stress, a recent move, a new baby in the family—may affect your child’s progress in ways you hadn’t predicted, while your own feelings or memories from childhood may color your attitude toward toilet training and, indirectly, that of your child.
Most likely, what you are looking for when approaching the toilet-training process are simple answers to two basic questions: “When should I start?” and “What method should I use?” Many people you ask are willing to provide you with cut-and-dried responses to these questions. However, their advice may not be appropriate for your family or your child. Some children are ready to start toilet training at eighteen months, while others would learn more quickly and easily if they waited until age three or four. Many children respond well to a regular potty routine, but yours may resist using the potty at the same time every day and prefer to wait until he feels the need to go. The truth is that nearly any nonpunitive approach to toilet training will get the job done sooner or later, but an approach specially tailored to your child’s stage of development and learning style will take you both through the process in the most positive, efficient way. By learning how to evaluate your child’s readiness for toilet training, you will be able to start the process at the best possible time for her.
You will learn to find your own answers to the questions “When should I start toilet-training my child?” and “What method should I use?” You will learn which basic skills your child must acquire before true bathroom mastery can occur. You will become familiar with a variety of verbal, physical, social, and other approaches to teaching your child about potty use, and discover ways to mix and match these techniques to suit your child’s personality, temperament, and evolving needs. If you find yourself stymied by your child’s resistance to training, you will find information about what may be causing the problem—along with encouragement to discard methods that aren’t working and try a new approach.
Above all, you will be encouraged to look at toilet training not as a grueling if necessary part of parenting a young child, but as an early opportunity to familiarize yourself with your child’s developing personality and to find out how he learns best. When you think about it, toilet use is one of the first and most significant skills your child must acquire consciously, rather than in response to the kinds of instinctive urges that prompted him to learn to walk or talk. There is nothing instinctive about using the potty. It is a practice that your child adopts for no other reason than that you want him to and that he wants to please you and to be like you. To teach him this habit, you must consistently encourage him, monitor his progress, and reward him for success.
You must observe his responses to your training techniques and adapt your approach accordingly. You must support your child in his earliest efforts to set goals for himself and consistently meet them. In the process you may discover that your child learns best through verbal interaction (talking about potty use rather than simply imitating and practicing) or that he responds to learning by doing (sitting on the potty at scheduled times so that potty use becomes a regular part of his routine). You may find that he appreciates tactful reminders or stubbornly resists them, that he is happiest when allowed to demonstrate every step of his progress or prefers practicing behind closed doors.
These discoveries, which enhance your understanding of your young child and help you to teach him how to learn, offer benefits beyond just learning to use the toilet. They lay the groundwork for you to connect with your child in positive ways—and set the tone for efficient learning in the years to come. The key to toilet training—and, yes, the fun of it—lies in choosing the time and techniques that work best in your family, teaching yourself to use them effectively and consistently, and observing your child’s amazing progress as he responds to a lesson plan designed for him alone.