Last week we celebrated my daughter’s second birthday. As a pandemic toddler – she really doesn’t have any friends, so we decided to celebrate with two of our vaccinated neighbors who have been surrogate grandmas to her during all these months of Shelter-in-Place. One of these neighbors has a dog who lounges out on his front lawn most mornings and we stop in to see him whenever he is outside. He came to her party dressed in his fancy Hawaiian shirt and V fed him a plateful of milkbone cookies.
Now that the two year old milestone has come and gone, I’m now turning my eyes to that big, scary, horrible, messy parenting task of potty training. She’s very ready, and has already used the potty a few times. It’s more me holding her back, not committing the time and the energy to the training. And so, I’m gearing up and giving myself a pep talk to get it done.
And it needs to be a pretty big pep talk.
With my son, potty training was awful. I decided to wait until after V was born to start because I knew that many kids have regressions after the birth of a new sibling. DK was 2 years, 9 months when V was born, so I figured – what’s a few more months? It would be a good time to train him with a newborn around, right? Newborns sleep so much of the day and we are going to be home so much – potty training will just fit right in there.
Boy was that ever a dumb plan.
Fast forward to 6 weeks after V was born, I decided out of the blue to begin potty training. Remember, I was sleep deprived, I had never potty trained anyone before, or really seen any child be potty trained, and I had half-skimmed “Oh Crap Potty Training”. I had not taught DK how to pull down or pull up his own pants, I had not taught him how to rip toilet paper (and he may have been the first two-year old in the history of toddlers who never tried to unravel the toilet paper), he never played around the house naked, and he was scared of the sound of the toilet flushing, It went as well as you would expect it to go considering these limitations.
I started off trying to follow the advice of the Oh Crap Potty Training lady – just do completely naked potty training, watch your child very closely and try to catch him right before he pees and get him on the potty. Well, with a newborn who also needed near constant attention, that translated to – clean a bunch of pee off the floor and feel like a failure.
Around day 3 of naked potty training, DK had to have a bowel movement. He was crying and pleading with me to give him a diaper and I refused, all in the name of a greater good. He was agitated and running around, clearly uncomfortable. I tried to get him to sit down on the potty but he refused. I put V down safely in her crib, where she began to scream, and I tried to hold DK down on the potty. That did not work. He ran away and as he ran, he pooped – a stream of shit spraying on the floor behind him. Everyone was screaming, including me, and then DK ran back around through the mess and tracked poop all over the house at a gallop.
To be honest, I’m not sure how I got us out of that mess. I somehow cleaned everything up on my hands and knees, tears trickling down my face to a soundtrack of V screaming in the background and DK dancing around me with a contented gut.
It was a serious low point for me in parenting and I gave up potty training for several months after that.
I felt like I committed a human rights violation – forcing him to poop in a way he didn’t feel comfortable. There are a lot of reasons why I don’t want to go to jail – but among the top reasons is having to use the toilet in an open room with other people watching. Being forced to soil oneself is one of the most degrading things that could happen to a person. Wasn’t I asking him to do the same thing, but in reverse? He was comfortable in diapers, and here I was demanding he do it differently, against his will.
He wasn’t ready, I wasn’t ready. The whole experience for me was so stressful, I had to have my mom come out 6 months later and help me. She had a bit more experience with potty training a toddler (my brother and I are, after all, potty-trained) and she also was able to be a bit calmer and matter-of-fact about it. Whereas for me, I felt like I had earned a great big F on my parenting report card in the subject “Potty Training”. It was hard to stay relaxed when I felt so much pressure to get it done and get it done right.
When my mom came to visit, we threw out the guidance of the Oh Crap Potty Training lady who said to not use rewards and to not use training underwear. We let DK wear training undies and when he sat still on the potty for 30 seconds on the phone timer, he got a chocolate chip. Over the span of a couple of weeks he earned two chocolate chips for peeing on the potty, three for pooping in the potty – and much later I upped the ante and gave him four chocolate chips if he would poop in the big toilet (so that I didn’t have to clean the potty every time).
The trend these days in my parenting circles is to focus on intrinsic rewards – not extrinsic rewards for motivation. After all, you don’t want your child to only do things for the extrinsic reward (a chocolate chip), you want them to want to do things because of the personal satisfaction it brings (bathroom self-sufficiency and privacy). I do believe in the importance of intrinsic motivation – but when it comes to doing hard things that are out of our comfort zones, or things that we don’t really want to do, extrinsic rewards work very well. This is why we get paid at our jobs. Very few people show up to work every day and give it their all because they are personally satisfied to do it. Maybe there are some children out there who genuinely want to change up the way they’ve had bowel movements their entire lives – but my child was not one of them. At three and a half years old, he was firmly in the “why fix what ain’t broken” camp and needed the promise of a chocolate chip reward to see the “why”.
Another idea my mom brought with her was after every try or potty-related-anything, she would get DK to choose a sticker, have him stick it to a blank piece of paper and then above it she would write what he got the sticker for. It wasn’t a fancy potty training chart, it was just a piece of paper with stickers and writing – but over the course of the day, the paper would get filled with all of his tries – big and little, successful and unsuccessful. At the end of every day when we were reading him his bedtime stories, we would read back over his potty experiences of the day, reminding him of and praising him for all of his efforts.
By the time my mom left, we (she) had mostly potty trained him. When we left the house to go to the playground though, I still felt insecure, so I’d put a diaper on him. This was another one of my mistakes because old habits die hard and as soon as that diaper was on him, his body would relax and release and he’d have a bowel movement – every single time. So after a week of that, I strengthened my resolve and got rid of the diapers once and for all. Surprisingly to me, we didn’t have many accidents.
I learned a lot from potty training DK that I am carrying forward with me as I begin potty training V:
- I threw him off the deep end. I didn’t teach him some of the basic things first – like undressing and dressing himself. I didn’t normalize the toilet flushing or let him play with rolls of toilet paper. With V, we switched her to Pampers 360 Fit diapers just after she was a year old. These diapers pull up and down like underwear instead of securing them with the side tabs. We’ve worked with her on dressing herself and pulling up and pulling down her own pants. We’ve taught her to wash her own hands at the sink and how to dry them with the towel. We’ve taught her how to rip toilet paper and flush it down the toilet.
- I gave her access to potties earlier than I did with DK. She also had more access to seeing other people use the toilet than he did.
- It’s okay to use extrinsic rewards for hard habit changes
- When mom is flailing, it’s okay for grandma to step in.
- Overly enthusiastic praise is not for every child. DK hates overly enthusiastic praise. He actually preferred to keep potty training a secret. He did not want to tell Daddy, he wanted everyone detached and unconcerned about his progress. It’s amusing now that he ever wanted complete secrecy because nowadays he announces to the entire house that he’s going to the bathroom and precisely what he plans to do in there.
So now it’s time to start potty training V. I’m determined not to completely fuck it up this time. I’m taking the best of the advice from my mom, from Oh Crap Potty Training, and from another book that my cousin mailed to me around the time I was potty training DK called “Toilet Training in Less Than a Day” by Nathan H. Azrin and Richard M. Foxx.
But first, A History of Potty-Training
Back before we had washing machines or disposable diapers – babies wore cloth diapers and mothers had to wash them by hand. I get annoyed when I have to carry a dirty diaper down the stairs and put it outside in the garbage – so I can only imagine how much mothers hated the job of hand-washing a poopy piece of cloth. Mothers were motivated to potty train their babies as early as possible to eliminate this extra work and used extreme and harsher methods of potty-training to achieve success.
Two inventions came along that shrunk this housekeeping burden; Disposable diapers and electric washing machines both began making their way into American homes in the 1940s. In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock changed the popular narrative on potty-training and encouraged parents to wait to train until the child showed interest and was psychologically ready – an average age of about 18 months old at the time.
As disposable diapers became more accessible, more parents delayed potty-training – waiting for “readiness”. The American Academy of Pediatrics advocated a child-led approach. Pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton helped popularize this trend to wait for child readiness. However Brazelton held a financial relationship with disposable diaper company Pampers – a company absolutely interested in keeping children in diapers as long as possible. Over the years, disposable diaper companies made their diapers more absorbent, more comfortable, and for bigger bodies. By 2001 the average age for potty training was 35 months for girls and 39 months for boys.
I can’t help but wonder why children in the 1950s were psychologically and physiologically ready at 18 months old and yet children today are not psychologically or physiologically ready until 3 years old (on average).
The parenting trend in 2021 is to wait for “readiness” but I think with DK I honestly missed the signs and procrastinated way too long. By the time I got around to it with him – he had entered the stage of toddlerhood (30 months+) where he realized he is his own person and wanted to exert his will to see what it would take to break me. It made the whole “you will use a potty from now on” thing a real battle of wills. I am determined to potty train V before she stops wanting to please me.
Toilet Training in Less Than a Day
Toilet Training in Less Than a Day was published in 1974. Azrin and Foxx developed and tested the method with 200 children of different sexes, backgrounds, abilities and ages. It is a bit old-school – but we’ve been teaching children how to relieve themselves in a culturally appropriate way for thousands of years, so I don’t see why we need to re-invent the wheel with every generation. It is a kind and firm approach that teaches the potty routine.
While I’m not sure that I will be successful at training V in less than a day (that seems like a really high bar), I am going to try the method in this book. I’ve already laid out the groundwork that they specifically mention as the pre-training steps:
1) Learn to dress and undress herself
2) Allow her to watch you (and others) use the toilet
3) Teach her the words associated with potty-training (e.g. wet, dry, stand up, sit down, potty, toilet etc).
4) Teach her “to cooperate in following your instructions” (“V, can you go get me a club soda please?” is one of our favourite games).
Okay, check, check, check and check. V can do all of that.
I am setting aside Sunday May 30 as the day to begin. My husband is going to take DK out of the house for much of the day. I am going to be prepared with a brand new potty training doll, a selection of toddler-friendly juice boxes and some salty snacks. I am going to put my phone on airplane mode and give her my undivided attention and go through this training program.
Then when it’s all done, I’ll be able to tell you, dear reader, if it worked. Are you ready? Is the anticipation of my success or failure killing you? Well without further ado…
Diary of a Mom, Day 1 of Potty Training the Azrin/Foxx method, Sunday May 30, evening
Well, it actually went pretty well! I had everything prepared the night before – training underwear in a size 4T so that the waist and thighs are quite loose, salty snacks, a selection of toddler juice-boxes, water bottles, M&Ms and Raisinettes. The raisinettes (chocolate covered raisins) were a particularly excellent choice because V loves them so they were highly motivating for her, but also because raisins will help with bowel movements over the next few days.
I also purchased a doll that wets (This one, expensive – yes, but cheaper than 3 months worth of diapers) and I wrapped it up for her as a present. This morning I sent my husband and son out for the day to go on train adventures together and with the house quiet and me able to give V my undivided attention, I gave her the present and we began.
The doll was a huge hit! She loved teaching the doll how to go potty, rewarding the doll for a successful pee, and emptying the potty. I followed the advice in the book and we played with the doll for quite a while, filling the doll and V up with liquids as we played. “Baby drinks! V drinks! Mommy drinks!” “Cheers!” Practicing with the doll helped her enormously and within the first two hours she peed on the potty twice of her own initiative and she also pooped (PRAISE THE TOILETING GODS). We had one accident right before nap time, so I decided to power through and do underwear at nap time. She stayed dry through her nap, but despite our best efforts she had two accidents after her nap. But then, with prompting she used the potty successfully three more times before bed! So all in all a very successful first day. She’s wearing a diaper to bed tonight.
Diary of a Mom, Day 2 of Potty-Training, Monday, May 31
Yesterday was new and exciting. Today V was not as into the potty-training experience. She seemed unsure if she wanted this new way to be her life now. She wasn’t completely opposed, just uncertain and uncommitted. We had a few accidents, but she helped clean herself up and then we did a few practice runs from the spot where the accident happened to the potty as per the Azrin/Foxx method. She LOVED doing these practice runs – running quickly to the potty, quickly pulling down her pants and sitting down. We did it over and over again after an accident and she squealed with delight. DK joined in and we were all running around the house in glee. Since she was in the middle of playing but was far away from the potty when the accident happened, I think the running-to-the-potty practice helped her with some confidence of what she can do differently next time to not have wet pants. Tomorrow I think we will try some running to the potty practice when she still has dry pants.
One part of this method that I like is the use of the question “do you have dry pants?” as opposed to “did you pee your pants?”. The first question just asks the child to reflect on the facts – the pants are wet or they are dry; whereas the second question assigns blame.
Diary of a Mom, Day 3 of Potty Training, Tuesday, June 1st
I decided to cancel our weekly nature walk with friends today in favor of staying home and continuing to practice with the potty. This was a good decision. V was excited to keep potty training and she had many successes and only one accident. She was keen to try and eager to eat chocolate-covered raisins as her reward. I actually had to go to Target to buy more chocolate-covered raisins as now she wants DK to have chocolate-covered raisins with her to celebrate a potty success (which is so sweet I could cry). I am tired but optimistic.
Diary of a Mom, Day 4 of Potty Training, Wednesday, June 2nd
Today was a long day. We had many accidents in the morning. A friend came over to play in the afternoon, which was a fun and much-needed playdate for the kids, but V was pretty distracted with playing and didn’t want to stop to use the potty. I am starting to doubt that this was a good idea and whether I misread the readiness signs.
Diary of a Mom, Day 5 of Potty Training, Thursday, June 3rd
Okay, as a mom, I am the one who struggled with potty training today. We made progress and I know I must focus on the success we had. But it’s taking so long! It’s hard not to feel like with every accident or emotional outburst that it’s a sign that I misjudged her readiness. I think that’s the greatest lie we Millennial parents tell ourselves. I know my child is far more capable than I give her credit for. It’s my own laziness, insecurity, and desire for instant gratification that is holding her back. Personally, I want to give up today. Go back to diapers because it’s easier. Admit defeat.
But to do that would be to tell her that I don’t believe in her, that I don’t believe she can do it. And sometimes believing in your kid is what they need to get themselves across big hurdles.
Tomorrow is a new day.
Diary of a Mom, Day 6 of Potty Training, Friday June 4th
On Fridays I take the kids to the playground and they both needed to get out of the house and climb and swing and slide. I was feeling down about the day before and I was prepared to put V back in a diaper for this excursion. To my surprise when she woke up this morning, she was all about using the potty. She had a potty success and then wanted to wear her undies to the park. I packed our travel potty and showed her how it would work before we left. At the playground she came and asked me for the potty a few times, wanting to try it but wasn’t successful. Yes, I was THAT MOTHER who brought a potty to the playground and had her kid pull down her pants and use it next to the stroller.
Despite our best efforts and V communicating her need for the potty and trying her best, we had an accident. I forgot to pack a spare change of socks, so we had to go home. I thought of spare undies and shorts – but I forgot that when pee dribbles down your leg, it makes your socks wet. Whoops, #momfail. This afternoon we had more success with V initiating using the potty of her own accord while wearing undies. I’m feeling optimistic that we are halfway there.
Update: Of course literally AS I TYPED that last sentence on my laptop at the kitchen counter V pooped in her undies. So getting overly confident is a bad idea.
Further update (end of day): She’s getting it! She’s getting it! We’ve now had three successes where she initiates a bathroom break all by herself, gets herself on the potty and does her business. Hurrah!!! I see a light at the end of this tunnel. I am not giving up.
Diary of a Mom, Day 9 of Potty Training, Monday.
I am now saying “this girl is potty trained”. She has used the potty numerous times of her own initiation over the last couple of days. The final two pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place today. First, she woke up with a dry diaper and got herself on the potty on her own. Second, she initiated bowel movements on the potty. So I think we are trained and I’m personally impressed with the Azrin/Foxx method. It’s possible it was the girl, possible it was the readiness, but I also think their method was clear and made sense to her and to me. It helped me be consistent in training which I think helped complete the training quickly.
To any mom endeavouring to potty train soon – I do recommend checking out this book. While some of the method I adapted to 2021 sensibilities (I didn’t like the phrasing they used for expressing disapproval at having wet pants), I think on the whole, parents in 2021 should not be skeptical of a potty training method used in the 1970s. It is kind and straightforward. It is not child-led, but it is respectful of the child and it gives the child the undivided attention they need from adults when learning something new and challenging.
I’d love to hear from you if you try this method! Did it work? Did it not work? Can I bring you chocolate? If any of my local friends are interested in borrowing my copy of this book and the doll that wets – let me know! I’m happy to lend it out.
*To my children: I realize I am posting about your potty training experiences on the internet, and you may be absolutely horrified of this when you are in jr. high. I promise I will take the post down before you turn 9 years old, unless this post goes viral and becomes the post that launches me into professional writing and pays for your college tuition. In that unlikely event, I promise to pay for your therapy.
Just so you know, the links to the book and the potty doll are Amazon referral links, so if you purchase through my links, I will get a small commission and I am so grateful for your support!
Azrin, Nathan H., Foxx, Richard M. 1974. Potty Training in Less Than a Day. Pocket Books.
Crockett, Zachary. The Evolution of Potty Training. Priceonomics. https://priceonomics.com/the-evolution-of-potty-training/
Engelhart, Katie. The Powerful History of Potty Training. The Atlantic, June 20, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/the-surprisingly-political-history-of-potty-training/371512/
Glowacki, Jamie. 2015. Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It Once and Do It Right. Gallery Books.
Laskow, Sarah. The Woman Who Invented Disposable Diapers. The Atlantic, October 14, 2014 https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/10/the-woman-who-invented-disposable-diapers/381310/
Tackett, Brittany. The History of Potty Training. Potty Genius Blog. https://pottygenius.com/blogs/blog/the-history-of-potty-training#:~:text=In%20the%201950’s%20nearly%20100,training%20today%20is%2030%20months.