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The One About Potty Training

Posted Apr 27 2009 10:47pm
A couple of you have asked about potty training and Positive Discipline and how that whole thing went down around here. I'm not sure I have any particular wisdom to share in this realm, since we have yet to have a smooth transition to the potty. But I'll share anyway, and perhaps you will learn from my mistakes!

I've heard of those kids who sort of potty train themselves and within a few days or weeks, after some miscalculations, mistakes, and messes, they're set! I even know several of these kids in person, so I know for a fact the existence of such creatures is not merely the stuff of playgroup mythology. Sadly for us, neither of our potty-trained children were these children.

Hmph.

The first time Ryan showed any interest at all in using the potty, he was 3 and Morgan was about 10 days old. I often wonder what would have happened if I had sucked it up--new baby, c-section post-op, and all--and just tried to get him going that very first time, if we could have avoided some of the stress and misery that lay in front of us. Oh well.

Flash forward about 9 months. Ryan, quickly approaching his 4th birthday, still had yet to do anything in a potty (outside of using it to store his trucks). I had really wanted him to initiate the potty training process, believing (and still do) that it's better to undertake such a project when the kid actually wants to do it.

We had done everything the experts recommend to prepare and encourage him: read potty books, placed the little potty in a convenient location, talked to him about it, put him on the potty whenever he looked like he needed to go. Not once did it work, and he resisted. But we were quickly growing impatient at having to change his diapers, particularly when he was so resistant to the diaper-changing process, too! (He was a very challenging 3 year old.)

So we had some more talks and bought exciting Spider-Man underwear and "toilet targets" and all of those other things you are supposed to do, declared "No more diapers!" because I'd read that sometimes such a declaration will nudge the little, ah, pooper along. After three days of absolutely no success, we decided to wait a little while longer.

And we went through this every month until he was nearly 4.

I was determined not to bribe him to use the potty, but I did break down at one point and gave him something (can't remember just what) after a few successes. But then the first time I didn't reward him, he looked at me and actually said "Well then why should I use the potty?" and peed his pants. Taught me a lesson about bribing him, that's for sure!

We cleaned up messes calmly for the most part, but I must admit that after a while, it was just SO HARD to stay calm every time. This was one of those "Why is he doing this TO ME?" things for me. I took it so personally--and I really can't say why. It just made me so mad. He is so bright and intelligent--why couldn't he get this? What was wrong with me? What had I done wrong? Was there something wrong with him? This was me, not at my PD parenting best, and even though I never hit him or put him in time out or any of those other punishing things--I punished him by my behavior--yelling and threatening and being too upset. Not only was he unhappy, I was unhappy with myself. :o(

It was so frustrating! He didn't seem to care that the other kids in his gymnastics and soccer classes were out of diapers. He didn't seem to care that he made a mess. He didn't seem to care that he was wet or poopy. And then I think it occurred to me one day--he didn't seem to care because he didn't care. And he wouldn't do it unless he really truly did care. Seems so obvious, doesn't it? Once I came to that place, it was easier overall to deal with it. I was able to get a handle on my own frustration and get back to approaching this in a more positive way.

So we kept on encouraging and talking about it--not every second, but when it seemed a natural time to bring it up, like when he followed one of us into the bathroom. Brendan showed him some guy techniques and I think he might have been mildly interested in that. :o) We had the potty out in the family room so he could get there easily and so it wouldn't interrupt his work too much.

The thing that finally got him motivated was his sudden interest in swimming lessons. Every program I looked into for 4 year olds and up required the kid to be potty trained. One mention of that requirement combined with his own actual real true desire--suddenly he wanted to! And he finally did. There were the usual miscalculations, mistakes, and messes, and within a few weeks, he did it!

What a relief! But what I didn't know is that there's no guarantee they'll stay potty trained. Huh? Yup.

I had always viewed potty training as a process with a definitive end result--someone who no longer needs diapers. Once the kid has reached that point, you're "done," right?

For the next 2 years almost, Ryan would experience bouts of potty regression. Just when I'd get comfortable leaving the house without backup pants, he'd start forgetting. A lot. He also developed a tendency to withhold his bowel movements, which fortunately, did NOT turn into true encopresis (which is a medical issue that can take years to clear up). The long and short of it is that he needed constant reminders to stop what he was doing and take care of his bodily functions. Constant. In particular, if he had been withholding, we'd make him sit on the potty every few hours for a couple of days to reestablish his "routine" again.

I can now confidently say that he's potty trained! And what we now know about Ryan is this: he does NOT want to interrupt his cerebral activities to take care of physical needs. This has been true in the potty realm and remains true about eating and drinking, too. We make sure he poops once a day--which he needs to do but still seems to delay until the end of the day sometimes--because he's too busy to stop! We also make him stop to rehydrate when he's playing outside on a hot day. We make him stop and eat something because he gets really cranky when he doesn't. The kid has a really hard time stopping, and that's just how he is. And now we know that! So what Brendan and I must do for this child is help him recognize the signals of his body, help him attend to them before things get too dire, and understand why it's important to take care of your body.

Now Morgan is a different story--but it's a shorter one, so bear with me! A few months before she turned 3, she announced to us that she'd be using the potty now. We were flying out of town that weekend, so we told her she could start once we got back from our trip, since I didn't want a brand new potty trainer at the airport. After my experience with Ryan, I was nervous about not taking the opportunity the moment it presented itself, but it couldn't really be helped.

We returned from our trip, set up the potty, and had a few days of Zero Success. I was disheartened, but determined not to make a big deal of it, since she was A.) interested and B.) actually doing something in the potty, and C.) a whole year younger than Ryan was when he trained. Sure enough, about a month later, she announced to us again that she was ready to try.

And after a few weeks of the usual miscalculations, mistakes, and messes, she was trained! Just before her third birthday, too. I couldn't believe it. And I was pretty excited, too, since the baby wasn't due for 3 more months, I figured her potty habits would have plenty of time to become ingrained and we wouldn't have to worry about that New Baby Potty Regression I had always heard about.

Hmph.

After Sean was born, Morgan did not act jealous; she did not try to jump on my lap every time I held the baby; she did not drop a shoe on his head (a classic Ryan maneuver). She was a wonderful, attentive, helpful Big Sister. Except for one. little. thing.

She completely and utterly stopped using the potty. She didn't go back to Square One--she reverted to Square Zero. And just in time for our big road trip to the beach! I hated to do it, but we did put her back in Pullups for that big trip, explaining that we just wouldn't be able to stop so many times for "let's just see" potty breaks. I just couldn't do it, not with a brand new baby, too (of course, we were careful not to make the baby the reason we couldn't stop).

And then she took a page out of Ryan's book, and the last 6 months or so have been a tale of starts and stops, a few weeks here, a few weeks there. Because of my experience with Ryan, I have handled it much, much better than I did with him, but there have been times with that old "Why are you doing this TO ME?" feeling would creep up and I've gotten upset with her. And then I'd remind myself to Assume Positive Intent and apologize to her and we'd all try again. With Morgan in particular, I've noticed an inverse correlation between my level of upsetness and her inclination to use the potty. So I've really learned to relax.

The last two months have been excellent, and while I still do take backup clothes for her most places we go, she has been very reliable. But I haven't really let my guard down all the way yet. :o)

Here are things I've learned, and hopefully will remember to apply them to Sean when it's his time:
  • It really goes easier when the child is the one wanting to train, although, it's okay not to wait forever.
  • There might be no definitive moment in time when the child is officially trained.
  • Patience.
  • Bribery backfired on us.
  • Don't take it personally.
  • Also, don't take it personally.
  • If they are not successful, try to identify why--for me, it was so helpful to identify Ryan's not wanting to interrupt his work for ANYTHING, not just the potty. (I now know him much better than I did, and so I suppose that's the silver lining to this tale.)
  • Feel them out before using the "You're a Big Kid" statement as a way to encourage them. Ryan hated that whole idea. Morgan LOVED the concept, and would proudly exclaim, "I'm a Big Girl!"
  • Girls really need extra wiping help for a long time--Miss M keeps developing something called "vaginitis" which is similar to a diaper rash and is really painful.
  • Give them towels so they can help clean up messes, just as they do when they spill drinks, etc. That's something they can be involved in.
  • Buy tons and tons and tons of underwear. Save the fancy ones for after you're mostly sure they've got the idea (but be aware that you'll probably be going through those pretty quickly, too.)
  • Buying fancy "kid" handsoap has encouraged handwashing, but stay away from the brand (can't remember--Huggies maybe? I go by the bottle) that has the "neon" colors because they stain. Especially the purple kind.
  • Read all of those books and stash little potties everywhere and talk about it and learn the boy tricks and do all of those things you're supposed to do, because they really do help.
  • Be sure to celebrate their accomplishment! They should be proud and you can share in it.

And never forget the wisdom of this time-honored Mommy mantra: This, too, shall pass.
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