Raising a child in the United States can be incredibly stressful. When it comes to parenting styles, there seems to be a right way and a wrong way among American parents. And if you choose to parent in a way that differs from the widely-accepted methods, it can feel very isolating. There are some areas that really are black and white. Take vaccines, for example. Vaccinating your children should be the norm, and it widely practiced and encouraged around the world. But for other parts of parenting, we can learn a lot from parents in other parts of the world. Potty training can be one of the most intense times in your parenting journey. But by studying potty training practices from around the world, we find that there really is no right or wrong way!
Anthropologist Alma Gottlieb has studied child-rearing practices from around the world for over 25 years.
In her book A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Eight Societies, co-edited with psychologist Judy DeLoache, Gottlieb details parenting practices from around the globe, from China to Côte d’Ivoire. Her findings prove that there is no one way to raise a child. Furthermore, there is no one way to potty train a child!
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In the US, it’s common to hold off on potty training until the toddler is 2.5-3 years old. Pediatricians say that starting any earlier could actually derail your potty training efforts, and make the whole process harder. In fact, researchers suggest that starting too soon can actually cause permanent physical damage.
But in other parts of the world, parents begin potty training much earlier.
For example, potty training practices in China show us that most children are fully potty-trained by the age of 2, thanks to the use of “split pants”. Gottlieb says, “This traditional wardrobe item features an opening along the crotch seam, allowing children to urinate and defecate freely without soiling their clothes. These garments remain the pants style of choice for toddlers living in the Chinese countryside.”
Whether or not a mother stays home or works outside of the home can also dictate potty training practices in some parts of the world. In some Palestinian territories, parents begin potty training at around 14-15 months of age. They don’t work outside of the home, so they are able to start earlier and devote the time and attention to the process. Working Palestinian women may start later, closer to the age of 2.
Some cultures even start in infancy, even as early as a few days after a baby is born.
In Côte d’Ivoire, Beng mothers begin potty training within days of a baby’s arrival. According to Gottlieb, enemas are administered twice as day, starting after the umbilical stump has fallen off. By the time the baby is a few months old, they’re trained to not poop at all during the day.
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There’s a reason for this seemingly extreme method of potty training. In many Beng villages, disposable diapers simply are not available, or if they are, farming families cannot afford them. Futhermore, Beng babies spend much of their days strapped to a caregiver’s back. Their mothers are out working in the fields to provide for their families. Gottlieb says, “Beng society (unlike traditional Chinese society) also rates all feces (including those of babies) as disgusting, and the thought of a baby pooping on someone’s back produces revulsion”. A caregiver would not agree to look after a child, even a baby, who would poop on her back!
Potty training practices from around the world are truly fascinating. And they prove once and for all that parenting is not a one-size-fits-all journey.