Rethinking “Potty-Training”

As with so many issues around modern parenting, whether or not your child is out of diapers and using the toilet by a certain age can be stress-inducing. The impetus for this deadline is often requirements that a child be able to use the toilet in order to attend day care, preschool, and organized children’s activities, or simply pressure from society itself.

Because children develop cognitively, emotionally, and physiologically at different rates, there is no one “right” age when a child should start to use the toilet. Some children show signs of readiness at 18 months old, while others may not show signs until 3 years or older. However, most parents are afraid to allow children to use the toilet on their own timetables. They are often told that for their own good children should be toilet-trained by a certain age. So, as more time passes and their child is still using diapers, some parents begin to feel increasingly helpless and concerned.

But there is no more reason to try to hurry your child into using the toilet than to worry about her walking, talking, riding a bike, or reading. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William Pieper suggest in Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, “It might be easier for parents to relax if they considered the unlikelihood that their child would some day play Little League, go to high school, or be married wearing diapers.” By taking the long view, parents might find it easier to give their child the time she needs to make the inevitable choice to use the toilet."

A Child’s Opportunity to Grow

Smart Love’s approach to “toilet-training” actually takes the focus away from “training” and instead encourages parents to allow a child “to choose” using the toilet for himself. We prefer the term “toilet choosing” because it highlights the true nature of the transition from wearing diapers to using the toilet. It is an opportunity for the child to gain greater autonomy and confidence in his abilities.

When you offer your young child the option of choosing the toilet with the same relaxed attitude that you offer him opportunities to play with crayons or blocks, then at the point that he chooses the toilet he will feel only pride, competence, and closeness to you. What route you decide to take—potty chair, training pants, or child-sized toilet seat—is not as important as your relaxed attitude.

Keep in mind that encouraging your child to use the toilet is different than cajoling him to do so, which can add unnecessary pressure or cause conflict. Given children’s natural curiosity and their desire to be like their parents, simply having a potty chair available and introducing it in a casual way will encourage your child’s interest in using the toilet. You can say something like, “Mom and Dad got you a toilet that is just like ours but in your size. It is here for when you want to try using the potty like mom and dad.” When your child chooses to try the potty (and on his own time he will), you can support his effort by saying something like, “I see you are trying to use the potty!”

Of course, even if parents choose to adopt a relaxed attitude toward toileting they can face challenges along the way. The following are some issues that may come up and how to deal with them.