I just potty-trained my daughter in three days. I don’t write that with smug satisfaction, I promise, or in the belief that I possess some kind of scatological super power. I write it because I am genuinely taken aback by the reams of anxiety-ridden literature on this topic. The success stories making the rounds are fewer and farther between: quite frankly, they are nowhere near as interesting. Chronicling long-term battles waged against the bodily fluids of a toddler makes for relatable (and funny) fodder. But, really, wouldn’t you like to hear about a kid who wasn’t crapping in her pants for months on end…just for a change?
In case you think I got lucky, I have two older sons who were also trained quickly and calmly at around two and half years old. Three is not a statistically significant sample size, to be sure, but it might count for a pattern in somebody’s book. My kids are all different from each other, their toilet-learning reflected this. It is never a one-size-fits-all endeavor.
My first son got the pees down straightaway, but had a short spell of asking for a diaper for the poos, skulking out of sight to do his business. Then there was the week or so I would find my second son idling behind the garden shed with dirty underwear and a guilty look. He is a lover of incentives, though, and the promise of a Jeff Wiggle doll convinced him almost overnight of the toilet’s many merits. My twins enjoyed a lengthy summer prelude whereby they dabbled, naked, in the art of peeing on a plastic pot before I let one of them hit the streets knickers-clad. Why not the other, you ask? Simple: he’s not ready yet.
Ah, readiness. The albatross around the first-time parent’s neck. It’s a tricky one, I’ll admit, because it’s a lot like obscenity: you know it when you see it. But if you haven’t seen it, of course, you don’t know it. Readiness is a constellation of qualities and, unless they are all present, it doesn’t count. It’s not just your 22 month old talking a good potty talk and admiring the pink princess panties in the shop. It’s not just your 25 month old doing the odd number two in the toilet or pealing off his diaper with enthusiasm. Nor is it the 28 month old who is mature enough, finally, but has made up a song the lyrics of which are: ‘I don’t like underpants, I only love nappies!’ A lack of interest will kill the thing dead.
Mistaking one or some of these signs for the real deal causes parents to start before a child is properly ready. There is an adage about potty-training, which is that if you start at 18 months, you will finish by three. And if you start at three, you will finish by three. (Anecdotally I can tell you that the friends who were adamant about putting 18 month old bums on the toilet were the same ones still struggling with the bums of their three year olds.) The point is obvious: rushing it is more often an obstacle than a catalyst, which is true of most milestones. But potty-training seems to be in a category by itself in this respect, surrounded with a social significance that makes it a prime candidate for prematurity and a social stigma that makes untimeliness a failure of epic proportion.
It is perhaps this cultural combination of importance and shame that cues the desire to get it done sooner rather than later. Throw in the grandparents who tantalize us with their incredible tales of excremental precocity and it’s no wonder so many of us jump the gun. My mother-in-law likes to tell me she had my husband on the potty at six months old. With success to boot. Whether that was a coincidence or not is another question altogether.
There is sooner and then there is too soon. Whatever the reason, potty-training too soon is a common mistake that is only made worse by parental mismanagement. This is why the days or weeks it should take turn into months and even years of boring your friends senseless with the latest chapter in the sodden-jeans saga. But it need not be so. Think of it like a cut. If you leave it alone, the skin will heal and you can start again anew. If you continue to stress over it, to touch it, to pick at the scab, the wound will fester. And the healing process will take much, much longer.
Potty-training is a complicated milestone because it involves mastering both convention and one’s own body at an age when life is hard enough. It also requires a fragile balance between the willingness of the child and the involvement of the parent. This is a large part of where the problem lies. We have, or we expect to have, more control over the timing of this aspect of our young children’s development than practically any other. We can’t decide when they walk or when they talk or when they stop throwing temper tantrums. But we can decide when we stop putting them in diapers, whether they are ready or not. In the end, it is usually this discrepancy of interest that causes the tears to flow around the toilet. Their tears and ours.