Thursday, March 13, 2008

Potty Training


I am a newcomer to Positive Discipline and am thoroughly enjoying the lessons I'm learning each day and week. I am the mother of a 2.5 year old girl and am expecting another baby in May. I am a stay at home mom, and my husband works out of the home, so we're both around all the time. My approach to parenting up to now has been a combination of a Mary Poppins "firm but fair" style and utilizing the same techniques my parents used with me which were consequential in nature – I've been using time outs and a light spank on the bottom in rare cases (which I am now eradicating from my "toolkit"). Whenever I discipline my daughter in any way, I always explain to her what I have deemed as inappropriate and I try to give her examples of more acceptable behaviour in the future. Any act of discipline is always wrapped with how much I love her - always.

About my current challenge – toilet training: I've read your past frequently asked questions, and I feel I have a behavioural versus physical issue to address. I believe it comes down to control. I am hoping that you can help diagnose that this is the case and prescribe some new approaches for helping correct the behaviour. Since she is 2.5 and we have a baby due just one month before she turns 3, I am a little worried about her regressing as well.

Here's a rundown on how we've approached toilet training thus far:

  • Bought her a potty when she was 20 months. She was showing interest and was able to listen and manage more than one or two tasks at a time. We introduced her to it and started with having her just sit on the potty when Mommy did, fully clad.
  • After a few months we had her sit on the potty without her pull-up or diaper at various times of the day. We'd read and sing while she sat on the potty. Often there was no result which was fine. Then on a few occasions there would be wee-wee. And immediately following there was a "hooray" dance and song as we celebrated her success.
  • In the months following her 2nd birthday we realized that she was opting to go in her diaper and was not asking to be changed. She was quite happy staying in a wet (even very wet) diaper. So, we bought big girl panties to hopefully make her more aware of the wetness and encourage her to not like being wet. We'd go through several panty changes a day. In that same time period, I noticed she was not comfortable at all with going poo-poo on the potty, so after lunch, I'd put her in a diaper to make sure she had her daily movement – otherwise, she would constipate herself. I thought – "let's just conquer wee-wee, then we can worry about poo-poo".
  • Then when she was 27 months, she started Nursery School 2 mornings a week. We started to regress because for a few mornings a week, she was in pull-ups and was quite happy to go back to her old habits versus requesting a visit to the potty (even after encouragement from her caretakers).
  • At this time, to try to encourage her to use the potty, we developed a "Success Chart" and monitored her track record with stickers and 1 gummy bear treat for each successful trip to the potty for wee-wee.
  • We started to see some success with the potty chart. So, we thought we'd ramp up the treat for doing poo-poos and we offered a trip to the ice cream shop if she did poops. (I was reticent to using bribery methods, but tried to think of it more as a positive incentive…). Then, out of the blue one day, she ran to the potty and made poo-poos. Boy, did we celebrate and congratulate her. That was the first and last time she did it.
  • When she hit 2.5, so did Christmas. And during the week or so with my family here, she really regressed. She didn't make an effort to get to the potty at all. We all chalked it up to it being an overwhelming time, though it was frustrating.
  • Now, at the beginning of '08, I feel like we're at the same point we were in the Summer months just following her 2 nd birthday. I really feel little progress has been made. On the rare occasion she requests to go to the potty at nursery school, which is a great step forward, but it's still occasional. We haven't again had a visit to the potty for #2s - and wee-wee accidents are frequent. Sometimes she'll just go wherever she is and then proudly announce that she made wee-wees (mind you, not on the potty). That said, she does make it to the potty once a day usually – and occasionally it can be up to 3 or 4 times in a day.

She is a very clever girl and my husband and I feel she is exercising control here. We believe she is very cognizant of what she's doing and that some of the wee-wees off the potty are intentional or it's simply a display of laziness… she just doesn't feel like going to the potty.

We are continuing to encourage and celebrate success, but we're getting very frustrated that there isn't improvement when we can see that she really does know what she's doing. My husband is beginning to feel like it's time to get firm with her. On a couple of past occasions he's tried to ask her why she didn't go to the potty versus just standing in the den or playroom to do it. She answers with "because I was playing, watching TV or just didn't want to". And on the "don't want to" theme. If we ask her to try to go to the potty, she refuses yelling "nooooooo!" and running away. If we try to make her, the rebellion escalates and we certainly don't want to turn this into a disciplinary seeming initiative for her. Similarly, when she's going to make poo-poo, she'll often say to me: "Do I have a diaper on?" And, I'll say… "yes, but let's go make poo-poo on the potty!" I'll sometimes mention the ice cream incentive as well. But it is often met with the same scream of "noooooo!"

Her nursery school is trying to help parents ramp up potty training so that the children will be fully trained by the time they come back in the Fall of '08 (all three year olds have to be out of diapers). I feel that I've tried every bit of advice found in the literature they've given me and everything I've read so far online. Some people have said, "oh, just wait for summer and keep her naked for a couple of days and then she'll have it down". Problem there is… she loves being naked (we have "naked playtime" every evening before bath where she just gets to streak around) and is quite happy to wee-wee anywhere without giving it a second thought.
Anyway – I feel we've tried lots of things and aren't making much progress.

Any advice is appreciated! Thank you!

Kind regards,



Jennifer, Sorry, but I love it that your email proves everything I teach--that punishment and/or rewards are not effective motivators for long-term effects; that parents make way too big a deal out of potty training (which really means training themselves, not their children); that what worked in the good old days (parental control) does not work with children today (children no longer have models of submission--a good thing); that children will use their personal power one way or another--constructively or destructively--and the more parents try to control, the more children will rebel; that children really want to do what big people do (use the toilet) unless the only way they can gain a sense of power is to rebel against all the control. Kids eventually see through reward charts as just another way for parents to control them. If you read any of the Positive Discipline books, you'll learn that a primary purpose of our philosophy is to teach children self-discipline, self-control, cooperation, responsibility, problem-solving skills, and most important--to feel capable and to feel good when they make a respectful contribution in homes or classrooms. None of this occurs from punishment and rewards (which teach external locus of control) instead of internal locus of control.

By the way, you can expect severe regression when the new baby is born and your daughter experiences "dethronement." I don't have time to go into what these means, but it is normal and helps when parents understand it. Right now it seems to you that you'll have this problem forever, but, no matter how many times you hear it, you have no idea how quickly it passes. If you understood this, you would relax and many problems would disappear just because of your relaxation. You will benefit so much by reading some of the Positive Discipline books and/or listening to the CDs. For now, I'm including an excerpt from Positive Discipline A-Z on potty training. I know you have already done some of these things, but with an attitude of control rather than inviting cooperation. My new theme for success is "Connection before Correction." Listen to free podcast Nos. 49 and 39 and on

Potty Training from Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott

"I hear so many conflicting ideas about toilet training. What is the positive discipline way?"
Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

Toilet training has become an issue that is blown out of proportion in our society. It can be the origin of feelings of guilt and shame, power struggles, revenge cycles, bids for undue attention, and competition between friends to see whose child is potty trained first. If you simply don't worry about it, your children will become toilet trained in due time just because they will soon want to copy what everyone else does. However, if you are still having challenges with children over the age of three and it isn't a medical or sexual abuse problem (see sexual abuse), you may have helped create a potty power struggle.


Wait until after your child is two-and-a-half years old before you even start toilet training--unless he begs to start sooner. If your child trains himself sooner, lucky you. Notice the words "trains himself". When most parents say my child is "potty trained," what they really mean is, "I'm potty trained. I'm trained to remind and nag and to catch him looking like he is ready. I'm trained to hand out the M&Ms and to put stars on his chart every time he pees or poops in the toilet."

When introducing your child to toilet training, get a small potty chair that he can manage by himself. At first let him sit on it for as long or short a period of time he wants without having to do anything. He may enjoy having a stack of books to read by his potty.

During warm weather, take your child and the potty chair out in the back yard. Let him play naked while you sit and read a book or simply watch. As soon as he starts to urinate, put him on the potty chair. Say, "Way to go." You may have to do this often before you child learns the socially appropriate place to urinate and defecate. If you are okay with a little mess, you can do this indoors too.

Lighten up and make toilet training fun. One parent emptied the toilet bowl and painted a target in the bowl. His son could hardly wait to try to hit the bull's eye. Another made potty time a mom and son affair. Both sat on their respective pots reading a book.

When you introduce training pants, do not humiliate or shame your child when he has an accident. Don't put him back in diapers. Simply help him clean up. Say, "It's okay. You can keep trying. You will soon learn to use the potty chair."

Avoid rewards and praise like stars on a chart or candy treats. Instead use encouraging statements, such as the ones above. Rewards can become more important to your child than learning socially appropriate behavior.

If you are engaged in a potty power struggle with a child between the ages of three to four, disengage. Teach your child how to take care of herself (clean up her messes and use the washing machine) and then mind your own business. That may sound harsh, but you'll be surprised how quickly the problems go away when you become unconcerned.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

Keep using diapers (without even talking about toilet training) until your child is old enough to talk about it. (You may be surprised by how early they ask to use the toilet like Mommy and Daddy or their friends who don't wear diapers.) You can then work out a plan together that might include pull-ups as a transition stage.

If your child is still not toilet trained by the time she is three years old, be sure to get a doctor's evaluation to see if there is a physical problem. If there is not a physical problem, you may be involved in a power struggle. Guess who will win!

Stop nagging. Allow your child to experience the consequences of his choice with dignity and respect. During a calm time, teach your child to change his own clothes. When the pants get wet or soiled, kindly and firmly take your child to his bedroom to find new clothes. Then lead your child to the bathroom and ask if she would like to change alone or with you there to keep him company. (Do not do it for him.)

If he refuses (which is unlikely if you have truly dropped the power struggle), ask, "How does it feel to have soiled pants? What ideas do you have to solve the problem? Where are the places you can play when you have soiled pants?" (See the next suggestion.)

During a calm time (when your child is dry) brainstorm with her places she can play when she's not in clean pants. Outside or in the bathroom (have some games in a drawer) or a basement might be appropriate. Be sure this is not a humiliating experience, but her choice. "You can change your soiled pants or play in one of the places we agreed on."

Teach your child (age four and older) how to put soap in the washing machine and push the buttons to wash his own clothes.

Find a preschool where the staff is willing to handle toilet training. It can happen quickly when the facility has small toilets that children can use themselves and children have many opportunities to watch each other use the toilet successfully. Many preschools also have frequent toilet routines that help children learn quickly.

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can discover that they can learn socially acceptable way to handle normal life processes in due time without guilt and shame. Mistakes are nothing more than opportunities to learn.

Parenting Pointers

Children often feel frustrated and powerless when faced with expectations they don't feel they can live up to. This is often the reason behind their misbehavior. Children may try to prove they have power in useless ways—by refusing to do what you want.

It hurts when parents don't give unconditional love. Children may want to hurt back without realizing that is their hidden motivation. One way to hurt parents is to refuse to do what is important to them.

Take comfort in knowing that your child will probably be toilet trained by the time she goes to college—and even much sooner when power struggles are eliminated. Relax and enjoy your child.

Booster Thoughts

The mother of a two year old told her daughter, "This weekend we're going to work on potty training. Whenever you feel the urge, let me know, and we'll go in the bathroom together and you can sit on the potty instead of going in your diaper." All weekend, she gave her daughter her complete and undivided attention, waiting for signs or signals from her daughter. By Sunday night, her two year old was completely potty trained. Though she had a few mistakes from time to time during the following year, she mostly used her potty chair willingly and on her own.


Heather said...

What is meant by teach him to clean it up and mind your own business? When a three year old pees on the couch, he will not clean it up completely, that's unrealistic. So my own business is that I have to clean up, help him clean up so he doesn't get a horrible rash on his bottom, etc. How does a three year old learn consequences without enforcement of any kind? we've been trying to potty train for six months. We've tried everything from incentives to let him do it himself. Our pediatrician just told us we have a lazy child and that he won't ever potty train unless we enforce because he has a toilet on his bottom with pull ups and he won't go. Now we have to provide incentives and charts and enforcement. We had to pull him out of the one preschool that would help potty train him at three because his teachers told him he was a bad boy related to his not being potty trained. So how does all this waiting for him to do it himself work for our situation? I don't think it does and I think I've done more harm than good to our three year old by waiting for him to do it himself. Maybe if we had enforced earlier, he wouldn't have gotten in the habit of using his pull up as a toilet so he doens't have to trouble himself with using the bathroom.

Mary Willis said...

The previous comment shows how hard it is for the message of PD to be heard v. the conventional wisdom.

This parent feels shamed, furious, and helpless, and so is in no condition to help her child.

I hope she got help before she convinced her child and herself that there was something badly wrong with her and/or her child.

The phrase I finally learned to use with my son (20 years ago) that helped us both let go of the power struggle was: "just listen to your body." ( I would say to him). That helped me and him remember whose issue it was, and he did not balk at those words as he did at all the directing words I used about what he should be doing.

And, yes, he was toilet trained by 3 1/2, long before college....

Kat said...

I really am shocked by what Heather said. A doctor saying her child is 'lazy', school teachers calling him 'bad', how awful! It doesn't sound like she truly let him teach himself though, as she starts off saying "we've been trying to potty train for six months". I hope she managed to let go and give her child control over his own body.

I should mention I have a 2.5 year old now and whilst there has been some pressure from friends and family to get him trained, I've refused. I have pointed out to him that I'm going potty, or I need a wee, and let him see what grown ups do, but that's all. He'll do it when he's ready.

Mary Willis said...

I had forgotten what an awesome post this was! I run a Montessori preschool, and am horrified at how very distressed parents get around this issue. It truly beats parents up! Please believe this; I have worked with hundreds of children over the years, and nothing else works as well for all involved as backing off and having faith!