- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005

The mother of a 28-month-old recently asked my advice concerning toilet training. She ended her question by saying, “We want to avoid doing anything that might result in her developing a negative attitude toward her bodily functions.”

Can you imagine a mom in, say, 1955 saying something like that? No, you can’t, because until recently, parents didn’t think every single child-rearing issue was fraught with apocalyptic psychological implications.

Pre-modern parents were straightforward (i.e., they communicated effectively), and when children became upset at decisions they made, the parents shrugged their shoulders and stayed the course (i.e., they acted with self-confidence).

The pre-modern mom didn’t view herself as Keeper of the Most Fragile Vessel of Holy Self-esteem. As a consequence, she didn’t dance around issues. When she felt it was time for her child to learn to use the toilet, for example, she simply said, “You’re not going to wear diapers anymore. Today, you’re going to begin learning how to use the potty. Come with me.” That was that.

The contemporary brouhaha over toilet training is a prime example of modern psychological thinking when it comes to children. The modern parent thinks teaching a child to use the toilet is a delicate psychological enterprise, that if she makes one misstep — starts too early, doesn’t read “readiness signs” properly, says the wrong thing, etc. — her child is going to be warped for life — in the present case, that she might grow up with a “negative attitude toward her bodily functions.”

The modern mom thinks this way because she has been influenced by pseudoscientific hogwash to the effect that toilet training is a delicate matter that, if not handled with great sensitivity, could result in an psychological catastrophe.

In fact, teaching a toddler to use the toilet is no more “psychological” an enterprise than is teaching a toddler to eat with a spoon. In both cases, during the learning process, the child makes messes. In both cases, a patient approach is going to produce the best results.

Is there reason to agonize over whether a child is or isn’t psychologically “ready” to be taught to use a spoon? Is there reason to believe that if one does not approach the teaching of self-feeding with great caution the child is going to be warped for life, that she is going to grow up with “negative feelings about swallowing” or something equally ridiculous? Of course not — and neither is there reason to agonize over toilet training.

The pre-modern (pre-1960s) mom did not agonize over any of this stuff. When she wanted her child to do something, she told him to do it. When she said “no,” she meant “no.” She toilet trained her child in less than a week by saying, “You are going to begin putting your business in the toilet” and responding patiently but with firm reminders when he had an accident.

Over the past 40 years, toilet training has mutated from something fairly mundane to one of the single most frustrating — for parent and child — of child-rearing matters. But then, over this same period, every single marker of positive mental health in our nation’s children has been sliding precipitously downhill.

Today’s child isn’t likely to have as happy a childhood as did a child who grew up in the 1950s. That’s right — by reliable account, the rate of child and teen depression has tripled since 1965. It is sobering to think about, and certainly ironic to note, that ever since American parents began worrying about psychological issues, American children have been having more psychological problems.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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