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Take the Pressure Off Toilet Training

Perhaps no other subject in early childhood is surrounded by as many parental concerns as the topic of "toilet training." For many families, nothing else seems to have a higher priority or greater importance. Unfortunately, it often causes the first major parent-child conflict.

Children, it seems, are perfectly happy with the convenience of diapers. They probably wonder why adults take the time to go to the bathroom! To them, urine is not particularly wet nor stool unusually offensive. To make matters more complicated, potty training often begins at a time when the youngster likes to say "no" to virtually every request - eating, sleeping, going to bed or getting dressed. Once the child realizes what the parents are up to, they quickly take control over the situation. If parents make toilet training too big of an issue (taking credit for success and feeling incapable at failures), the toddler will delight in using this power and will begin a game of power-struggle: "No I won’t!" Let’s test and see who is in control here. "You cannot make me!"

There are many reasons why parents want their child trained. Being dry represents a milestone in development: the ability to maintain control over the bladder and intestinal tract. Some parents always want their child to be more advanced than the youngster’s playmates, causing "friendly" competition with other families. Many push too hard because of pressure from well-meaning grandparents who equate toilet training success with successful parenting. Other considerations include being able to enroll their child in a preschool that requires the child be "trained," and eliminating the need for diapers (about 5,000 in the first two years!)

Although "potty training" is the term typically employed, what really takes place is "potty education." According to St. Petersburg psychologist Dr. Herb Goldstein, "toilet training is a terrible expression. It makes the process sound like boot camp, and pressure on the child is a sure prescription for failure. With a 2-year-old, you need to choose your battles carefully." Dr. Goldstein feels that while there are certain battles parents can win, using the toilet is not one of them. "No amount of haranguing, pleading, punishment or reward can make a child go to the bathroom. The youngster must want to go." Deborah Critzer, who edits the Positive Parenting Home Page on the Internet (, writes that "potty education is the child’s problem and the child’s opportunity to learn and grow. Where and when they have their bowel movements is one area in which the youngster has complete power and control."

Frequently, many children understand what the toilet is all about yet resist using it. The most common reason for lack of success is that the youngster has been reminded and lectured too much. He/She has been forced to sit on the toilet against his/her will, occasionally for long periods of time. Others have been spanked or punished for not cooperating or having accidents.

As parents approach a child who steadfastly resists going on the potty, they need to remember four things: First, forget what other people have said about how their child learned to use the potty. Any friend or relative who claims to have completed the process early or quickly is either exaggerating, or has redefined the term (the child remains dry because the parents whisk their toddler off to the bathroom just in time). Second, don't take it personally. Every child has his/her own timetable, and "different" does not mean "worse." Third, when a child is ready to use the potty is not an indication of their intelligence, nor is it a reflection of one’s parenting abilities. Fourth, the price of "pushing" a child when he/she is not ready is high. Whatever success is achieved will be outweighed by serious long-term problems, including constipation, daytime wetting and loss of self-esteem.

The following recommendations will help:

  • Reverse the power struggle. "Many children begin using the toilet when they realize that they have nothing left to resist," according to pediatrician and author Dr. Barton Schmidt. Statements like "You’re just great, and you’ll do it when you are ready," clearly says that the toilet training is up to the child, writes Dr. T. Berry Brazelton in his book Touchpoints.

  • Stop all reminders about the toilet. When the toddler stops getting attention for not using the potty, many decide (on his/her own) to use the toilet for attention.

  • Transfer responsibility for being dry to the child. Since all children will be dry eventually, the most important outcome of toilet education is a boost in the child’s self-esteem.

  • Don’t make the process a contest. Place all attention on the child’s success, not the parent’s failure. "Too frequently the emphasis, time and discussion are placed on not having succeeded," according to Dr. Goldstein. "Try to ignore failures and pay more attention to the successes - or even near successes." Comments like "I know you can!" or "I remember when you almost did!" cheer a child on.

  • Give incentives for using the toilet. When the child stays clean and dry, give plenty of positive responses, such as praise, smiles and hugs.

  • Never ask the youngster if he/she wants to use the toilet. That only gives him/her the opportunity to say "no" and toddlers love to say "no!"

  • Do not punish, shame, nag or criticize under any circumstances.

  • Ask grandparents, baby sitters, and day care staff to use the same strategy.

  • Declare a "toilet education moratorium" if there is no success. No harm will be done by placing the youngster back in diapers and putting the potty chair away for a while. The hazards of forging ahead with an uncooperative child are many: it only instills feelings of failure, lowers the youngster’s self-esteem and fuels the child’s resistance, leading to constant "power-struggles." The anxiety creates stress for both the child and the parents that will make later tries even more difficult.

Time is on the parent’s side. It is frequently not until the child is 3 before he/she is confident and comfortable enough to be successful on the toilet. In addition, children around that age begin to do more role-playing and strive to imitate their parents. They also become more interested in peer interactions. Walking around in dirty diapers or being changed becomes a source of discomfort. Therefore, waiting not only increases the youngster's enthusiasm for toilet education but eliminates the need to do any convincing. The child is ultimately in charge and will stop resisting the potty when there is no longer any power struggle. The best recipe for successful toilet education is a blend of love, patience,and encouragement.


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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