Imagine if you were reading a parenting article about babies learning to walk, and someone wrote, “Oh, my child walked at nine months. I don’t know why people make such a big deal about teaching kids to walk. I just stopped holding his hands and walked away from him, and boom, he followed me! I figure if he’s old enough to eat solids, he’s old enough to start walking.”
It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? And yet this is exactly what a lot of parents do when talking about toilet training.
I know this because both of my kids were late trainers – not for want of trying, mind you. Believe me, I would have loved for them to train early, and I cannot wait for the day that the excretions of other people are no longer my concern. (I hear that happens somewhere around their teens.) But for whatever reason, while they both understood the idea of toilet training relatively early on, they were not capable of actually being fully trained until they were older.
Ben, as the first child, got to be the experimental one. I searched for every toilet training tip I could find: online, in parenting books, from other parents, any source I could think of. That’s how I heard gems like, “Just put him in underwear. He’ll only pee himself a few times and then he won’t like the feeling.” Or, “Use a sticker chart, and he’ll train in no time!” – or a musical potty, or M&Ms. People suggested telling him he couldn’t do a special activity until he was trained. I heard “Get him special underwear – he won’t want to pee on his favorite character!” and “Just make him sit until he goes.” And dozens of other “tips” that people I knew, or commenters on the internet, said were the thing that trained their toddler.
Nice try, but no. We tried it all. And it wasn’t that Ben was resisting the idea – he was genuinely trying to make it work. He just couldn’t make it happen. Toilet training is a pretty darned complicated skill, and it requires not just mental readiness, but also physical readiness. Until a kid is physically ready – ready to hold it, able to recognize the feeling of having to go, and capable of releasing on command – all the willingness in the world won’t do the trick.
I saw the moment that Ben finally put all the pieces together with my own eyes. We were doing a long drive, and we made a pit stop at a gas station. Naturally, being a new-to-toilet-training mom, I had forgotten to bring a potty seat or anything for him to use, so I had to hold him in order to make sure he didn’t fall in. As a result, I had, um, an eye-level view of proceedings. And for the first time, I saw his muscles contract as he finally tried to go. I also saw the delighted look on his face as he realized that he had finally done it. He was 3 ½.
That’s why I get a trifle ragey when I read comments about toilet training “tricks,” because they’re often left by people whose smugness comes from having early toilet trainers to work with. To paraphrase a comment I read that perfectly sums up this attitude: “I will never use Pull-Ups. I want my daughter to pee in underwear so she knows how gross it feels. I potty trained both my girls this way, one at 18 months, one at 21 months. If my daughter can ask me for milk, she can tell me she needs to go pee!”
Well, I’ll call BS on that one. There is a reason that replacing the carpeting in our TV room is on my list, and it’s not because my kids were wearing Pull-Ups while I toilet trained them. Trust me, if they are not ready to learn, they will pee in all the underwear.
I really wish parents everywhere would learn that kids are different. Alicia walked at nine months, but that doesn’t mean walking at nine months is normal for every kid (or even to be encouraged – if I had known what it was like to have an early walker I would have considered pushing her down.) Toilet training is a complicated skill that requires physical, emotional, and mental readiness on the part of the child. For some kids, that takes time.
How much time? Various experts put the range between 18 months and four years of age (yes, you heard me, four years.) The Association of American Family Physicians says that most children do not master the skills necessary to toilet train before 24 months of age and that most kids are probably not ready for intensive toilet training before 27 months. Some doctors will recommend starting training even later – three years old or after – unless the child shows signs of readiness.
But what sums things up best to me is this quote from the American Academy of Pediatrics “[if] a child is not physically or emotionally ready for toilet training, parents should be encouraged to delay training. Explain to parents that initiating toilet training too early can create stress for the child and ultimately prolong the toilet training process.”
If your child trained early, I am happy for you – seriously, genuinely happy, because I would have loved to be diaper-free with my kids earlier. And for your child, stickers or a special potty seat or character underwear might have been the final thing to tip them over the edge to readiness. But you have to understand that the “trick” you used was only one part of a complex set of circumstances that included your kid’s readiness, your readiness, and probably what house of the Zodiac the moon was in when you started. So, please, don’t judge the parents whose kids aren’t yet trained unless you have a real reason to believe the kid is ready and it’s Mom and Dad who are holding them back.
If your child trained late, know that you’re not alone. We don’t talk about the range of normal toilet training enough, which is what prompted me to write this – I’ve had too many other parents look like they wanted to cry when they confided that their two-year-old wasn’t trained yet, only to have me say, “That’s okay, my kids were over three.” It’s easy to be scared that you’re just not doing things right when your friends are telling you that their child has been Pull-Up free for a year, and yours is still wearing the potty seat on their head. You will get there; as my dad joked with me when I was stressing out about Ben, “There are very few college students in diapers.”
We’re all parents, and we all want the same thing out of toilet training: not to have to wipe another human’s butt any more. So let’s go easy on each other, huh? There’s enough (literal and figurative) crap in every parent’s life without heaping on more.
(photo: Alex Studio/ Shutterstock)