Whenever I start to feel guilty about the fact that I spent the majority of my Christmas vacation wearing my pajamas, I remind myself that I did in fact accomplish something very monumental, right there in my worn-out flannel bottoms and time-softened jersey shirt.  Well, rather, I should say my son accomplished something very monumental.  We cleared the first hurdle of potty-training.

Since mentioning this venture, I’ve had a few friends ask for my “secret” to potty training.

Now, let me say that I’ve now been to this dance with three boys, using the same method.  But just as you would expect with three different boys, I’ve had three different reactions.  I take comfort knowing that two of the three are fully and completely potty trained nonetheless, and I feel pretty confident that the third will arrive there as well.

My method is simple and common: Get a few pairs of undies that are particularly appealing to your child (for one son, this meant we had about 20 pairs in his drawer before finding the one pair that really got him on board).  Let your child choose between the diapers and undies.  For best results, block out as much time as you can to just be at home, with a potty chair in sight and little pressure on your time.  Be calm about mistakes, and enthusiastic about success. And then just roll with it.

That’s essentially my method.  But there are hundreds of different methods out there and millions of success stories to back them up.  To me, the method is less important.  The real secret is in the basic principles that need to be in place, around which a variety of methods can be successful.  Here are those principles, the real secret to potty training.

Principle 1.  It’s about your child’s control, not yours. 

A child is usually ready for potty training right at the peak of a developmentally driven desire for independence, control, and mastery.  This can be maddening at times, but it’s what pushes a child to develop self-help skills (like potty-training) as young children, and (hopefully) sets them on a path that keeps them from slurping up a bowl of Fruit Loops at 11 in the morning from the comfort of their parents’ basements at 35.

So the first principle is to recognize this drive for control and independence and use it properly.  You want your child to learn to address those basic toileting skills independently right?  Then stop trying to exert too much of your own control, and provide as much room as possible for your child’s own self-control.

This means letting your child choose.  It means letting your child choose whether or not to wear the undies and which undies to wear.  It might mean letting your child choose when to use the potty or which potty to use.  It means letting your child be the one to do the flushing.  It means asking if he/she needs to use the potty, rather than carrying them there and forcing them to sit. 

Avoid using methods of force where your child must sit on the potty until until using it, or where you put your child on the pot at pre-set intervals of time.  These methods are all about your control and do little to build your child’s own control.  Now of course, these methods may have “worked” for some, but they’re simply not the most effective or developmentally appropriate approaches.

As much as it most certainly involves you and absolutely requires your attention (and your towels, and your laundry detergent, and….) ultimately, it really is not about you.  You’re already potty trained.

Principle 2.  Failure is necessary.

The second principle of the secret is to remember that failure is necessary.  Your child will need to have a few “accidents” to be able to make all the right cause-effect connections and to recognize his/her own body’s signals and needs.  

Trying to constantly “save” your child (and yourself) from the inconvenience of these accidents is tempting, but doesn’t help the learning process.  Failure is necessary.  So be ready for that.  Try to hang out in easily cleaned areas (on a spread out blanket, on tile, outside).  Have cleaning supplies at the ready at home and on the go. 

Being prepared and having appropriate expectations takes the edge off of the hassle.  And this is important, because as much as you want to enthusiastically reinforce your child’s accomplishments, it’s important to stay low-key about their accidents.  “Sometimes that happens when you’re learning.”  has a much better effect than, “Are you kidding me!?@?!?”

Avoid any method that endorses punishing accidents.  Your child will not magically develop better control over those sphincter muscles sitting in time-out or by watching your overly-emotional reaction.

Of course, that’s not to say that natural consequences can’t be a good teacher.  Some children learn from the discomfort of sitting in soggy britches.  Others learn that it’s more inconvenient to change clothes than it would have been to have left the toys for a minute to use the bathroom.  After an accident, that favorite pair of undies now needs to go in the wash.  Bummer.  (In some situations, that means we move on to the second-favorite pair.  Other times, it just means we go back to the diaper for a while.)  When appropriate, children can even grab a towel and get involved in the cleaning process, just one more natural consequence.

So those are my two main principles.  My big secret to potty training.  Hopefully they fit in with the method you use with the children you love and teach.

What are the “secrets” you’ve learned about potty training?

  • {For more information, check out this fantastic and comprehensive post on potty training by Lisa Sunbury at Regarding Baby: Toilet Learning Made Easy.  Also, check out this “Real Mums” conversation about a variety experiences with potty training over at Childhood 101.}

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