Sunday, May 24, 2009

Two weeks ago, I addressed what has become the primary toilet-training problem in America: children who refuse to use the toilet for bowel movements. In almost every case, these kids’ parents missed the boat when it came to training, meaning they didn’t start until well after their kids’ second birthdays. In that column, I summarized a corrective program that has proven successful for lots of frustrated parents.

“So,” writes a reader, “you claim it’s easier to toilet train a child under age 2, but you failed to tell us how to do it.”

No, I didn’t fail. I postponed. Since prevention is the better part of cure, let’s now take up the issue of how to toilet train a child between 18 and 24 months, which history confirms is the ideal window of opportunity.

First, your attitude is the most important ingredient in this toilet-training recipe. A technique is useful to a point, but without the right attitude (and this applies to any disciplinary effort), no technique will produce lasting results.

Approach toilet training with the same casual, matter-of-fact attitude with which you approached teaching your child to eat with a spoon. They are, after all, both self-help skills. Despite psychobabble to the contrary, neither is fraught with apocalyptic psychological ramifications. When spoon-training your child, you encouraged without being silly, conveyed a clear expectation and tolerated the temporary mess.

If you can muster that same attitude with regard to potty training, you’re halfway there.

Second, put a potty or two in that area or those areas of the home where your toddler spends most of his time. Keep it in the bathroom and you inadvertently invoke the Out of Sight, Out of Mind Principle. If the layout of your house and your child’s range of movement require it, put out two potties. They should be simple, Spartan contraptions, not ones that do silly, superfluous things like play Barney songs when sat upon.

Third, set aside a week during which you can spend most of your time at home. Your ability to maintain a calm focus during this teaching time will help your toddler remember what you are expecting of him.

Fourth, if you’re working with a girl, she should spend her day naked from the waist down. Don’t even use diapers for naps. Dress a boy in nothing but the thinnest cotton underwear you can find. The point, in either case, is for the “mess” to travel unimpeded down the child’s legs, which they do not like. Just take a deep breath and clean it up.

Fifth, as soon as your child wakes up in the morning, take him to the potty. When he is seated, walk away, saying, “Call me when you’ve done something and I’ll clean you up.” Do not hover or otherwise act nervous. If your child refuses to sit, so be it. Make this into a power struggle and you’re done for.

Sixth, whether or not your child produces at the first sitting of the day, set a timer to ring every 60 minutes or so (different kids, different intervals). Call it the “potty bell.” When it rings, simply announce that it’s time to sit on the potty. Remember, don’t hang around.

Seventh, clean up messes without drama. Nonetheless, don’t tell your child that making a mess is OK. It’s not! When he has an accident say, “Make sure you sit on the potty next time.” Be firm and resolute, but don’t be angry.

Eighth, respond to successes positively, but not overly enthusiastically. Do not, under any circumstances, give rewards or use them as enticements.

Last, when the process is complete, hire a carpet cleaner to erase the evidence. The typical cost of said removal is why I call this method “Naked and $75.”

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (

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