Go With The Flow, Part 2: How to Address the Typical Challenges That Arise in the Potty-Learning Process

This blog, which addresses how to manage potty learning challenges, is a follow-up to a previous post that focused on guiding principles for how to take a positive approach to helping children learn to use the toilet. I strongly recommend you read Go With the Flow, Part 1 before digging in to this piece as all the guidance below is based on the principles that are outlined in Part 1.  

When it comes to challenges in the potty-learning process, it is important to keep in mind that children are not a monolithic group. They have different temperaments, developmental paths, and life experiences that impact all aspects of their functioning, including learning to use the potty. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach that works for every child and family. When I collaborate with parents to address these challenges, we look at all the factors that might be influencing the process to come up with the best solution for their unique child. For example, in one family in which the child was withholding bowel movements, there was a lot of conflict between the parents that was affecting the child. Once we developed ways to help the parents reduce the tension in the household and combined that with some of the strategies described below, their child stopped holding in his poop.

Problem-Solving Potty Challenges
By and large, the primary reason the children I have worked with get stuck in the potty-learning process is a result of anxiety caused by the pressure they are experiencing to use the toilet. Often, these children are temperamentally more sensitive and cautious. They are fierce about needing to be in control. The more they sense that others are trying to make them do something, the greater their need becomes to take back control. When it comes to potty learning, this often means refusing to use the toilet and sometimes holding in pee and poop.

By the time families come to me for help they have tried everything: rewards and consequences; setting limits around using the potty (i.e., establishing times they have to sit on the potty and try to go); and even shaming or threats. Nothing has worked because these strategies don’t tackle the root of the problem—the child’s resistance to feeling controlled. In fact, the typical strategies parents are using are often inadvertently perpetuating the problem. In many cases, the constant and intense focus on trying to coax their child to use the potty has become an intrusion into family life and a major stressor.

The strategies below are all designed to reduce the tension and give control back to the child, where it belongs:

  • Explain to your child that it is her body and only she controls it, including choosing how to pee and poop. Point out all the positive ways she already controls her body, such as: eating healthy foods to grow big and strong; getting herself to sleep to build her brain and body; running, jumping and climbing which helps her have fun on the playground equipment. The idea is to instill a sense of confidence in your child that she is capable of controlling and taking good care of herself. This is an important first step because the messages she has likely been receiving, inadvertently, are that she doesn’t know her own body.

  • Dial it all back. You might say something along these lines: “Mommy and Daddy have been so silly! We have been trying to get you to use the potty because that’s what we do; it’s what feels good to us. So, we figured it might feel better for you, too. But that was so silly, because only you are in control of your body. It’s your job to take care of it. (Kids love the idea of having a job.) So, when it comes to peeing and pooping, you are the decider about where you let it go—in a diaper/pull-up or the toilet. From now on, it’s all up to you. It doesn’t matter to us as long as you let the pee and poop out. It’s not healthy for it to stay stuck in your body.” This discussion is purposely designed to be lighthearted to ease the tension that is usually pervasive around pottying at this point.

  • Be clear about her choices and show confidence in her ability to make the best decisions for herself. “What’s so awesome is that you’ve got two great choices: since you know how to hold your pee and poop in until you want to let it go, one choice is to use the toilet. Then you can wear underwear. You just let us know what else you need to use the toilet. We are your helpers. If you choose not to use the potty, you wear a pull-up; but the rule is we have to change it when it’s full of pee or poop because it’s not healthy for your body to sit in a full pull-up.” It is critical that the rules are presented matter-of-factly, without any suggestion that one choice is preferable over another. The idea is to make this process a less emotionally-charged experience.

  • Follow through—no talk about going to the potty unless your child brings it up and you are following her lead. While this feels very uncomfortable to many parents—we feel like we have to be doing something to help our children make progress—in most cases it’s our over-involvement that is the root cause of the problem (see Part 1). Children learn to self-regulate when you show that you believe in their ability to make good choices for themselves. When you try to do it for them, you are sending the message that you don’t think they can do it; that you need to do it for them, which only leads to more dependence and missed opportunities for children to take responsibility for themselves.

  • Expect accidents and don’t shame your child for them.  As discussed in Part 1, making children feel bad about accidents doesn’t prevent them, and it can actually increase them. Showing disappointment or annoyance can create a lot of anxiety that may interfere in the learning process, making children less likely to use the toilet. Shaming is not a motivator. Instead, focus on having your child help take care of her body: “Accidents happen. No problem. Here’s a towel to wipe up the pee. Now wash your hands and choose some clean clothes. Great job!”

  • Avoid comparing your child to other children or making threats about the consequences of him not going on the potty: “Your brother was doing this by the time he was 2 ½.” Or, “Do you want to be the only one left in your class who uses pull-ups?”

When parents stick to this approach to the letter, communicating with their words (and body language and facial expressions!) that they couldn’t care less whether their child chooses to use the toilet or pull-ups, usually, within a month children start moving toward independence in using the potty.

Other Common Challenges

Constipation. 
Many children I see are holding in their bowel movements as a way to assert some control over their bodies when they sense that others are trying to manage them. This can lead to constipation which makes pooping painful and adds another layer of stress to the process.

  • Explain to your child very matter-of-factly that letting go of his poop is very important for his health. Holding it in makes the poop hard and painful to push out. Many parents find this video helpful to share with their children. It illustrates why and how we poop and what happens when we hold it in. Be sure to view it in advance as you know your child best and can assess whether you think it will be useful for him. (If you do share it with your child, I suggest starting it at 00:26.) Taking a scientific approach can be very effective for helping children see that they are making choices about how to eliminate and that each choice has an outcome.

  • Talk to your child’s health care provider, who may prescribe a stool softener. As long as your child’s bowel movements are hard, it is unlikely he will feel comfortable letting go. One caution: be sure to work with your provider on establishing a dose that softens your child’s bowel movements but that doesn’t make them so loose that your child can’t control them. This can intensify the problem. Remember, it’s all about control.

  • Once your child’s stools are no longer hard, follow the steps laid out above to make it clear that your child is in control of both his body and the outcome of his choices about how to eliminate.

Children wearing underwear but then asking for a diaper/pull-up to poop. This is very frustrating and confounding for parents. The child clearly has all the skills she needs to use the potty. She is able to hold her pee and poop and then let it go in a planful way. She’s just doing it in a diaper versus the toilet. But she is almost there. Crossing the boundary to try to control your child runs the risk of setting her back. Instead, reinforce the idea that it is your child’s choice, but that there are some rules associated with her decisions: 1) You can tell your child that when kids are 2 ½ or 3 (whatever age you decide), pee and poop are done in the bathroom. By this time, most children have observed many peers using the potty and they see their parents going into the bathroom all the time, so this will make sense to them. Whether your child goes in the toilet or in a diaper, it all happens in the bathroom; and, 2) There is an expectation that she will participate in the process. This conveys that she is capable of doing a lot of her own self-care and you are supporting that. This means using a pull-up versus a diaper because she can put it on herself when she needs to poop. Then you will help her take it off and put the poop in the toilet, wash her hands, and help get herself re-dressed. When children experience the consequences of their choices, it is more likely they will ultimately decide that it’s just easier to go on the potty.

Children who actively resist or seem afraid of using the potty. There are many reasons why this may happen, but the most common I see are:

  • The way they experience their bodily sensations and other stimuli around toileting. Children who are under-responsive to bodily sensations may not be bothered by a full diaper and are less tuned in to the signs of having to pee and poop. Others are over-sensitive to sensory input, for example: sounds, which make the toilet flushing scary (especially the automatic ones); touch/tactile sensations, which may make the feel of pee slashing up onto them or poop coming out, uncomfortable; and smells, like bathroom odors, that can be overwhelming.These are often the kids who say they are afraid of using the potty. If you think the cause of the delay in, or resistance to, potty learning may be in some part due to your child’s sensory experience of the process, I recommend you consult with an occupational therapist (OT). OTs are highly skilled at helping children process sensory input accurately so they can master new skills more readily.

  • Feeling unstable on toilets that are too high to enable their feet to be firmly planted. That’s why I recommend using a “squatty potty” that fits around the base of the toilet where your child can rest his feet.  

  • A major change in your child's world, such as: a new baby, a recent loss, a family move, or a change in child care arrangements: If this is the case, I recommend giving your child time to adapt and get back to his baseline of feeling secure in his world before trying the strategies outlined below. Note that If the change is a new baby in the family, your child may be much less interested in being a “big boy” because he sees the baby getting so much attention for being dependent, including being diapered. In addition to giving him some time to adapt to his new sibling, I would avoid using “that’s what big boys do” to try to coax your child to do something you desire him to do as that can backfire during this stage. It can also be interpreted as shaming—that he’s a baby because he’s not acting like a big boy. Remember, shame is rarely a motivator and can negatively affect a child’s self-esteem.

Children who have turned three and are showing no interest in using the potty. The following strategies have been effective in helping children take steps forward in the process:

  • Use pretend play to give your child a chance to practice and get comfortable with the process. You might build into the story you are creating together the idea that your child’s lovey (or action figure, doll, animal, etc.) needs to learn to use the potty so he can swim in the big kid’s pool or go to the camp he wants to attend. Through the play, encourage your child to be a helper. Have your child take the pretend toy through all the steps of going to the potty. If you have a sense of what the obstacle might be for your child, for example being afraid of the unknown or feeling pressure to “perform”, build that into the play. Have your child be the one who helps the toy get over the fear. This can be very empowering to children, especially those who have expressed being afraid of going on the potty, as it helps them work through whatever anxieties they may have about the process.

  • Have your child pretend to use the potty. Go through all the steps: have her pretend she feels some pee coming; provide whatever help she needs to pull her pants down or lift her skirt/dress up; have her choose which potty to sit on and then she pretends to let the pee and poop out. Having a chance to practice through pretend can ease anxiety and pressure and make children more comfortable with the process. Some children actually end up going during the practice session and they’re on their way.

  • Set a specific date for when there will be no more diapers and pull-ups. Some parents choose a specific age marker, for example when their child turns 3 or 3 ½. It is critical that you communicate this matter-of-factly, just like you might tell a child that she will start going to school every day or that she is going to have a new caregiver. You acknowledge that this is a change and that you are there to help her make this transition. And most importantly, communicate that you have complete confidence that she will adapt. Point out other changes she has faced and mastered. Remind her that she is still in complete control of her body. You are not making her do anything. If she goes on the potty, fine. If she has an accident, no problem, you will clean it up together and move on. This initially feels uncomfortable to parents. But remember, it is strategic; when children sense their parents have an agenda or expectations, it causes anxiety and pressure that interferes in learning. Accidents are part of the process. They should not result in shaming or annoyance. Once children experience that it is all up them, and they don’t have anything to rebel against, they are more likely to make the best decision for themselves which is to use the potty. Few children would prefer to have accidents all day long that they are responsible for helping to clean up. This strategy can also be used with children who are stuck on using a diaper to have a bowel movement even after they have fully mastered peeing on the potty. 

I recognize that this sounds like boot camp, but it’s not. Most boot camps involve constant reminding about using the potty, requirements for sitting on the potty at certain times of day for set periods of time, and rewards for using the toilet. It is adult-driven. The model I am suggesting is quite different in that it entails trusting the child to figure out how to control his body in an age-appropriate way and to master a new challenge for which he already has the skills to achieve.
 
Keep in mind that when your child does pee or poop in the toilet, don’t go overboard with excitement as that can lead to regression (see Part 1.) It can feel intrusive and overwhelming. It also means that when your child doesn’t use the potty, he is disappointing you which makes the whole pottying process fraught with emotion. Instead, acknowledge your child’s success in a way that communicates that it is his accomplishment. Point out the benefits for him of making the choice to use the potty: “You felt the pee coming, got yourself to the potty and let it go. You had total control. Now there’s no need to change a diaper. Back to playing!”

Final Note
Potty-learning challenges can be very complex and confusing. They are often caused by underlying issues your child is struggling with. So, if you are in the midst of a challenge around pottying that you feel is having a negative effect on your child (and family), I encourage you to seek consultation for two important reasons: 1) The way you approach this process has an impact on your child beyond learning to use the potty. You are sending him messages about his capacity to regulate himself which is critical to his overall development; and, 2) Understanding the root cause of the struggles your child is experiencing can be hard to figure out. A trained child development specialist can help you put together the pieces of the puzzle that make up your child’s behavior. This can help you approach the challenge in a positive and effective way that supports your child’s overall development. And, the insight you gain about what makes your child tick can help you anticipate other developmental tasks or experiences that might pose challenges for him as he grows. It can provide a roadmap for how to support him through other challenges he may face.  

Go with the Flow: Preventing the Perils of Potty Training

The prospect of potty training is terrifying for many parents. They have heard horror stories of catastrophic boot camps, kids refusing to poop on the potty, and preschools rejecting children for not being trained. Through my work with families facing these challenges, I have developed an approach to potty-learning that takes into consideration what the process feels like from the child’s perspective, which is often overlooked, and that addresses some key factors that can have a significant impact on whether this process is positive or perilous. A follow-up piece will address how to deal with specific challenges that may arise in the potty-learning process.

Look at the pottying process from a developmental perspective:

  • You have no control over your child. You can’t make him do anything, including pee and poop in the potty. Children are the only ones in control of their bodies. It is their job to master these skills, with adult support. It is not your job to do it for them.

  • Learning to manage bodily functions, such as, elimination, eating, and sleeping, is essential for children’s sense of agency and self-esteem. It builds confidence that they can be in control of and take care of themselves.

  • The ability to use the potty is all about control—the ability to “hold it in” and get to a potty to let it go. It just so happens that the age at which most children have the skills to learn to use the potty (2 to 3 years) coincides with an upsurge in their desire to exert control over their world. Therefore, some amount of defiance and opposition is developmentally appropriate and normal for children at this stage, and it is often triggered by others’ attempts to control them. When it comes to potty learning, this means that the more you try to control your child’s elimination, the more likely she is to dig in her heels and refuse. This is how your child maintains her integrity and reminds you that she is the only one who has the power to control her body.  

  • Further, between 18 months to 2 years, children are becoming increasingly aware that they are separate beings and that their body belongs to them. They begin to feel greater ownership over their bodies which makes them even more sensitive to people trying to control their bodily functions (diapering, feeding, dressing, etc.)

  • Temperament plays a big role in potty learning. For children who, by nature, tend to be more controlling and have a harder time being flexible and adapting to change, the potty learning process can be more challenging. With these children it is especially important not to cross the line into trying to control them as the chances are that it will backfire.

The approach:

The approach I recommend is based on tuning in to the child’s experience of this process, instead of the parents’ agenda to get them “trained”. I now call it “potty learning”, as I find that “training” conjures up the idea that parents are in a position of power and have to make something happen. This puts parents in a state of mind that leads to more intrusive and forceful tactics that often backfire.

Be sure your child is ready. Signs that children are ready, which usually emerge between 2 and 3 years, include:

  • Having control over their bowel and bladder, which usually happens around 18 months 

  • Staying dry for at least a 2-hour period

  • Recognizing that they are urinating or having a bowel movement 

  • Being able to follow simple instructions

  • Wanting to come in the bathroom with you to watch how you use the potty

  • Feeling uncomfortable in a soiled diaper and asking to be changed

  • Wanting to sit on the potty, even if they don’t pee or poop on it yet

If you push the process before your child is showing any interest, she may sense that you are promoting your agenda. This can lead to that knee-jerk defiance that results when children feel you are trying to control them, thus turning the pottying process into a power struggle.

Provide whatever tools and support your child needs to feel comfortable using the potty. This might mean helping your child with getting her clothes off/on, wiping, washing hands, etc. As for which potty to use, see which is most comfortable for your child. Some children may prefer using the adult toilet with an insert while others like the kiddie potties. Giving children choices like this can be helpful as it gives them a sense of control. Be sure that whatever option your child uses enables him to have his feet firmly grounded. If he likes using a traditional, adult toilet, I recommend getting a “squatty potty” that fits around the base of the toilet where your child can rest his feet. This provides a sense of security and stability that can be very helpful for many children.

Take a scientific approach. Explain why we all pee and poop; that our body takes in what it needs from what we drink and eat, and what our bodies don’t need comes out as pee and poop. Then explain that people who use the potty wear underwear, and people who choose not to use the toilet wear diapers/pull-ups. To demonstrate, I do a little experiment with kids: I get a pitcher of water and a ball of clay that is moistened. I point out how the water has the consistency of pee, and the wet clay is like poop. Then I pour some water from the pitcher onto the underwear and then onto the diaper/pull-up, to show how the water soaks through the underwear but not the diaper. I do the same with the wet clay which is absorbed by the diaper but not the underwear. Then I make it very clear that it’s their body and they get to choose which way they are going to let the pee and poop out. I find that when you take a teaching approach and emphasize that it’s up to your child to decide how she will eliminate, she is freed to act on her drive for independence and master the skill, unimpeded by the pressure or anxiety she might experience when she knows the adults in her world want her “trained”.

A note about pull-ups: Some worry that pull-ups don’t teach kids anything because they don’t experience the effects of peeing or pooping in their pants. But if you present the pull-up as an option that gives your child choices, it can be a great tool to use as part of the learning process. You show your child and help her practice putting the pull-up on and then pulling it down to show her that she can use it like underwear when she wants to use the potty. If she chooses not to use the potty, then she can pee and poop in it—no problem. It’s her choice. You might even role-play it (which kids love), so she can have the experience of using it both ways.

Allow your child to make the decisions about how he eliminates. For example, when he needs to go and whether to use the potty or a diaper/pull-up each day. Remember, your job is to support your child in the process, not to control the process. I suggest creating a drawer that has pull-ups/diapers on one side and underwear on the other. Each morning when your child gets dressed, you let him know that he gets to choose which he wears, reminding him that underwear is only an option if he chooses to use the potty. Remember, the more children feel that they are in control, the more likely it is that the process will go smoothly. I have seen even seemingly benign efforts to steer children backfire. For example, a child I worked with had been choosing underwear for three days and using the potty pretty regularly. On day four he surprised his parents and chose a pull-up. Dad couldn’t help himself and injected: “But you have been doing so well with the potty. Don’t you want to wear undies?” The child responded with a resounding, “Yup!” and reverted to using pull-ups for several days. Once he saw that his parents were back to being agnostic and acting like they didn’t care less whether he used the potty or pull-ups, he went back to choosing underwear and the process proceeded smoothly from there. (The need to feel in control often supersedes everything!)

Follow your child’s lead. Acknowledge her interest and the steps she is taking in the pottying process. Be sure to focus on her accomplishments and not the impact it has on you. Remember, this is her responsibility. Rather than saying things like, “Mommy is so proud of you! You peed in the potty!” I would recommend responding with something more like, “You felt the pee had to come out and you got yourself to the bathroom, pulled down your pants and let it go in the potty. You made it happen! No need to change a diaper.” This keeps the focus on your child by acknowledging the steps she took to master this process. It’s her victory.

When you have a big reaction about how excited and proud you are; or, conversely, show disappointment (which is palpable to kids through your tone and body language, even when you don’t say anything), it makes pottying a relationship issue. When your child’s actions have the power to please or disappoint you, it becomes emotional and personal and can put a lot of pressure on a child. This can interfere in the potty learning process. It is one of those counter-intuitive aspects of parenting. We function from a place of logic and believe/assume that if we praise our children, they will want to do more of whatever it is that makes us happy and do less of things that disappoint us or make us angry. But remember, young children are driven by emotion, not logic, and those emotions can get in the way of learning.

Also note that, for some children who tend to be more sensitive by nature, a big parental reaction can be overwhelming and shut them down. Many families I work with report that when they got really excited about their child having pooped in the potty, their child burst into tears and reverted to refusing to sit on the toilet.

Expect and handle potty accidents matter-of-factly, without anger, shaming or punishment. Accidents are part of the process and should be handled dispassionately: “No problem, accidents happen. Let’s get you cleaned up.” Encourage your child to help in the process, not as punishment but to support his learning to take responsibility for his body. He might be in charge of wiping up pee and then choosing a new pair of underwear. When we have a big reaction to accidents and show anger or disappointment (not just with words but with gestures, facial expressions, and heavy sighs) it makes children feel ashamed. This tends to increase, not decrease, accidents. It makes the whole elimination process anxiety-producing, which interferes in their ability to master it.

Use natural consequences. For example, you tell your child you are heading to the playground where there won’t be a potty and suggest she go to the bathroom before you leave. She says she doesn’t have to go. You resist coaxing, cajoling, bribing, etc., and explain: “It’s your body, so you know best what you need. If you have to go when we are at the playground we will just need to go home.” This is not punishment and is never said as a threat. It is a matter-of-fact outcome of his choice. You might also take a kiddie potty with you, which many families do, so the child has an option. If your child has an accident, you either help him change into a clean set of clothes or take him home, again, not in anger but as a natural consequence. Then the next time you are leaving the house you can remind him of his choices. When you refrain from inserting your own agenda or expectations and are clear about your child’s choices and their consequences, children learn from experience and act accordingly. If having an accident means needing to leave the playground early, they are likely to decide on their own to use the potty before your next trip to the park.    

What to avoid:

There are a number of pitfalls parents fall into when it comes to potty learning that I would suggest avoiding, as they run the risk of interfering in the process rather than promoting it. These include:

Introducing potty learning when a big change is on the horizon or has just taken place. Any significant change in a child’s world can make him feel out of control, such as an upcoming or recent family move, a new child care arrangement, or welcoming a new baby into the family. Children don’t have the perspective required to make sense of what these changes mean which leads to feeling unstable and insecure until, with time, they see that all is still right with the world. Since learning to use the potty is all about control, it is best not to focus on or expect your child to master this skill at a time when he is coping with another significant change in his life.

Forcing. You are on risky ground anytime you cross the line from providing support to trying to control your child. One common scenario is telling a child she has to sit on the potty after she’s said she doesn’t have to go. This communicates that you know her body better than she does, which interferes with her ability to self-regulate. It can also be experienced as intrusive for many children, who then react by digging their heels in by withholding their pee and poop in a desperate attempt to maintain their integrity. On a home visit I was observing a family’s typical routines. Their rule was the child, “Shayla”, had to sit on the potty for 5 minutes before bedtime (which, by the way, is an eternity for children). When the timer went off, Dad asked Shayla if she was sure she didn’t need to go. Shayla said “yes” quite definitively. She then promptly got up and proceeded to pee right on the bathroom floor.

I also discourage picking up children to take them to the potty, unless they have given you permission. This attempt to control the process—especially when a child is in the middle of peeing or pooping—can intensify children’s resistance to using the potty. Further, you are sending that message that you know their body better than they do. If you see your child starting to strain or showing other signs of needing to eliminate, you might ask if she would like help getting to the potty. But if she says no, I strongly suggest you respect her wishes.

Punishing or shaming. When you punish or shame children for accidents or for using a diaper instead of underwear, it is more likely to impede rather than promote progress. Shame is a very powerful, toxic emotion that shuts children down. They get flooded with negative emotions that inhibit them from thinking clearly and learning from experience.

Using rewards. I am not a fan of rewards in general. They send a message to children that whatever accomplishment they have achieved is only valid or valued if it results in some kind of external reinforcer. What I think we really want for our kids is for the “prize” to be the internal sense of satisfaction they get from gaining more independence or achieving a new skill. In addition, using rewards often results in children becoming dependent on them, demanding a prize for everything. You tell them it’s time to clean up, or to get dressed, and they ask what they’ll get as a reward.

When it comes to potty learning, I find using rewards particularly problematic because children instinctively know that their parents are using them as a tool for control, to get them to do something the parent wants them to do. Have I mentioned that this dynamic tends to result in defiance and resistance rather than compliance? Further, the flip side of getting a reward is the terrible disappointment children feel when they don’t earn it, making pottying a source of stress and self-doubt.

Boot camp. I am not a fan of boot camp, either. This is a method that entails either putting children in training underwear so they feel the result of soiling themselves, or having them go bottomless altogether for several days while parents remind, ask and direct them to use the potty. The hope and expectation is that this will lead to children learning to use the potty within days.

No doubt, this method works for some children. And to be fair, my perspective is negatively skewed because so many families come to see me for guidance on the heels of a boot camp epic fail, such as this mom who recently wrote to me in a panic: “After a botched four day potty training boot camp that quickly devolved into a power struggle, we found ourselves at square one…. Unfortunately, we regrettably seem to have created some anxiety for (Louie)…when he starts to have the feeling of needing to go, he starts to have a mini freak out. He whimpers, dances around, and wants to be picked up or sit in your lap. We feel awful for creating this angst for him (we definitely fell into the "over-prompting" trap) and don't want him to suffer.” For children like Louie, who fall into that category of the more sensitive, intense little ones who crave control, boot camp often backfires. It is a method that is clearly driven by the parents’ agenda and thus leads to power struggles, increased anxiety, and often backwards movement in the pottying process. For children who are more go-with-the-flow (no pun intended) by nature, boot camp may work fine. But why take the risk? When children are ready and their parents have followed the steps above to support their children in being in charge of their bodies, most children will do it on their own.

Making toileting a social, playtime endeavor. To incentivize children to sit on the potty, many parents give in to demands for or voluntarily offer up screens for children to use, or books for mom and dad to read to them while on the toilet. I discourage this because it sets children up to think that potty time is playtime, rather than simply elimination time. (I know, you’re thinking it’s the rare adult who isn’t on his phone while doing his business.) Kids then become dependent on being entertained on the toilet and may use it as a tool to get parental attention: “I’ll sit on the potty if I can watch Daniel Tiger or Pepe Pig,” is a frequent refrain I’ve heard. Young children are very strategic. They know how desperate their parents are for them to use the potty, and they exploit it. One little girl announced that she would try to poop on the potty but mom would have to come in and read to her. This went on for almost 20 minutes as her little brother got zero attention in the next room. Put that one in the “win” column for sibling rivalry.

Constantly talking about the potty. When parents sometimes focus too intensely on using the potty, for example, by constantly reminding and asking kids about whether they have to go; or frequently reading books about going on the potty (not at the child’s request), it can increase resistance. Children pick up on the underlying meaning of your actions—that you are trying to control them. Further, the whole potty process takes over your everyday interactions, which tends to increase everyone’s stress level and detracts from just enjoying your child.

I hope these guiding principles help you get off to a good start. Part 2 on pottying will focus on many of the questions that I know this blog may have raised, or that you may already be dealing with, such as: my child is three and not showing any interest; my child won’t poop on the potty and is withholding and getting constipated; my child says he wants to wear underwear but then has accidents all day long. Stay tuned.