Potty Training

posted March 19, 2009

Fail. Fail Again. Fail Better.
-Samuel Beckett

Lila is sitting next to me on the corner of the easy chair as I write this. She is wearing mismatched pajamas and black rain boots. She wants to know why the writers aren’t eating snacks right now. I tell her it’s because they are writing and also that I forgot to put the snacks out. She wiggles down and slides off the chair and runs over to her shelf full of toys and drops a big basket of percussion instruments on the floor. I hear her mutter, “Don’t worry, it’s not a problem.”

Earlier this evening, we were watching old videos on my computer of Lila when she was seven months old (Johnny’s current age) and eleven months old and eighteen months old. It gave me pangs to see that sweet, funny, light-of-my-life little person, that person who didn’t know the meaning of the word “tantrum.” In truth, neither did her mother.

I haven’t said much about potty training. That’s because it’s a blight on what is otherwise a peaceful and serene life, and I want you all to think I mostly have it together. But there are times when my interactions with Lila around this issue make me feel like THE most incompetent parent in the history of parentdom.

There are lots of ideas out there about potty training. One, T. Berry Brazelton’s, is to leave the kid completely alone and wait for him to figure it all out for himself, presumably before he’s in junior high. Others, including a number of disposable diaper-hating environmental types like me, think the diaper industry is behind this and argue for earlier, more hands-on toilet learning.

Except that nothing I have done ––or continue to try to do–– works. Lila showed great interest in the potty about a year ago, and that interest lasted about a week. My interest in her learning the potty, however, did not wane. As I have written here, we mostly use cloth diapers, and as the months progress (and the population of diaper-wearing members of our family doubled), I become more and more eager for the elder of the two to figure out where to put the products of her digestion.

By the way, in my earnest desire to be green, I also eschewed commercial diaper wipes in favor of rags (made from soiled and stained baby clothes) and a spray bottle of a mixture of water, olive oil and baby shampoo. This system works wonderfully and is cheap, though it does require laundering and sorting the rags into equal piles which must then be delivered to three distinct diaper changing stations. It also requires keeping up with the three spray bottles and making sure they are full and present at each station. I was willing and eager to do this until recently when Lila discovered the spray bottles and decided it was her duty to use them to “clean” the bathrooms. She knows I don’t want her to do this, so she says, “Mama, I need privacy,” and slams the bathroom door shut. At first I thought this was good news and might lead to toilet use, but I have since found that it always results in her emptying the spray bottles of their contents, sometimes onto the vanity mirror, sometimes into her potty, and sometimes all over the changing pad. So we are going to suck it up and go back to paying $5 per package of wipes.

A friend recently suggested the M&M method of toilet training: one M&M for a pee, five for a poop. This worked well the very first time: Lila gladly obliged, but five minutes after eating her one M&M she opened her eyes wide and said, “Mama! I have to pee again!” and ran to the potty. She peed three times in an hour and then lost interest in the M&Ms completely.

We tried blowing bubbles every time she peed. We have made charts. Lila puts a sticker on, then I forget to hide the stickers and I find the chart covered with them a day later. The day after that, the chart is crumpled up, having been used as “wrapping paper” for a gift (the gift being something along the lines of an empty dented Crayola box.)

Lila likes her diapers. Yes, she is interested in underpants, but not in a fanatic way. She will pee on the potty if she is bare-bottomed, but if there is anything between her skin and the floor, she will pee or poop in it. And if I could only subscribe completely to T. Berry Brazelton, I would be so much happier. Busy doing diapers, but happier.

Steven Hayes (along with Martha Beck) talks about clean pain versus dirty pain. Clean pain is when something happens that we don’t like: a broken leg, a broken heart, a job loss, a death. Dirty pain is the thoughts we add on top of the experience, thoughts like “This bad thing happened because I am accident prone, or clumsy, or unlucky, or ugly, or unlovable or incompetent.” And the thought that often goes along with these nasty untruths is, “I’ve finally been seen for the loser I really am.” I am having dirty pain galore as a result of the speed of Lila’s toilet learning. I think I am warping her by encouraging her to use the potty. I think I am too impatient to really sit with her and let her figure it out: that a more talented parent would be able to coach her child into happy toileting. I think if I’d left well enough alone and just let her go at her own speed, she’d have figured it out by now.

Because we started potty training at just the age where she began to differentiate herself from me (around 24 months), I am not sure where potty battles begin and just plain old terrible-two battles end. If I had done the Brazelton (non) method perfectly, would I still have that sweet little angel who babbles up at me from the computer screen?

No, of course not.

Tom said something really helpful today when I told him that she had wailed and screamed when I told her it was rest time in her room. He said, “The greatest gift you can give her is to let her know that she can have all her feelings, safely. When we try to keep kids from being angry and sad, we send a message to them that those feelings aren’t okay and they might not be able to live through them. Kids–we all–need to learn how to manage our feelings. She’s safe in her room. She cried herself to sleep and she woke up and cuddled with you and went on to have a good afternoon as a result of getting a nap. And she knows a little better that she can handle a tantrum, and that YOU can handle her tantrum.”

I love that. And I love my strong-willed little almost-three-year-old. As I watched her watch her baby-self on the screen, I saw a tender smile creep onto her mouth: the smile of recognition, of one human watching another creeping along the developmental path, doing the best she can.

The Comments

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  1. The key element in both my kids’ potty training was being in day care, and seeing their classmates use the toilet. For what it’s worth.

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