Q: I recently tried toilet training my 32-month-old, but after a few days of no success, I decided to stop. A friend tells me to hang in there, but my pediatrician says my son isn’t ready. She suggests I try again in a few months. Your thoughts?
A: What does it mean that a 2 1/2-year-old child “isn’t ready” to learn to use the toilet properly? In the absence of serious developmental delays, a child is capable of learning to do this between 18 and 24 months. I prefer the term “capable” to “ready” because the latter implies that toilet training is fraught with psychological pitfalls, which is simply not so. To put this in perspective, consider that a 3-month-old puppy can be house-trained in three days!
You obviously think that if something you do doesn’t bring results in a few days, then you must not be doing the right thing. The fact is, even if you approach the task properly, it can take up to six weeks to toilet train a toddler, and boys are disproportionately represented at the upper end of the scale.
Like most of today’s parents, you bought into the “readiness” myth and have waited past the point where this would have been relatively easy. You might also have made the mistake of micromanaging. Today’s parents are very anxious about toilet training, and their anxiety drives a lot of hovering and over-directing. Toddlers are not inclined to follow instructions of any sort when someone is hovering over them. As Grandma used to say, “A watched pot never boils.”
The keys to relatively quick, painless toilet training are:
Set the stage properly. Put the potty out in the open, where the child spends most of his time during the day. Yes, even if that means the living room.
Make it simple for the child. Either let the child walk around the house naked from the waist down or wearing only thin cotton underwear. Don’t use pull-ups! They only delay a child’s ability to sense when he has to use the toilet. You are helping your child learn something new, so get rid of the old. Also, by letting your child walk around naked or wearing only the thinnest of underwear (note: no training pants either!), when he has an accident, he will know it and so will you. Stains? Big deal. When your child is trained, call the carpet cleaner.
Keep your distance. Remember that this is a trial-and-error process. If you hover, trying to prevent errors, you are likely to provoke resistance.
Respond properly to mistakes. When a mistake occurs, be encouraging and supportive. Take your child over to the potty and remind him of what he’s supposed to do. Needless to say, yelling and other outbursts of frustration are counterproductive.
Now, go ahead and get started with what you should have started at least six months ago. And this time, stick with it.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.