The Potty Story

It started with a letter. As the kind of parent whose good intentions never really translate into a careful reading of the school handbook, it was a body blow of a letter. I feel certain the school administrators imagined it to be a friendly reminder to all of us handbook-conversant parents that 3 year olds don’t wear diapers to school and their classrooms do not have diaper changing areas, but the friendly was lost on me. In the space of maybe a minute on a hot July afternoon I had to accept the fact that the gig was up. My son would not be potty training himself. My efforts (such as they were) were required. It seemed unlikely that in the not-quite three months that stood between us and the start of the school year the boy would singlehandedly don a pair of underwear and ascend the throne. Not a chance.

You may be wondering how I could have made it almost all the way to the third birthday of my first born without giving any real consideration to the matter of the potty. All I can tell you is that I had heard lots of parents say something along the lines of, “You know, the best advice we ever got was just to wait until little Johnny was ready. Once he was ready, it was smooth sailing.” The moment I heard that, I was on board. This wait-and-see approach was appealing to me for all sorts of reasons. For one, it made sense. Toddlers are willful creatures and who wants a war zone in their bathroom? And then there’s the matter of my academic training. As every psychologist can tell you, all roads to therapy are paved with potty trauma. This last isn’t exactly true, but I can’t help but cling to a lingering fear that it might be. But perhaps the best part of the whole (ok-non) strategy was that it took me off the hook. No use getting all crazy about potty training until the little guy is ready. We’ll just take our time. Follow his lead. Of course we would.

And then, I got the letter. By the time I made it back to the house I was furious with all those “just wait until he’s ready” people. Who did they think they were anyway? Going through life handing out advice without even defining their terms. They said “ready” as if that word had any objectively identifiable meaning. What is READY and how had I never though to wonder about this before? How (barring ESP) could I ever have known when his potty-ready switch was thrown? Had I thought it would just come up in conversation one day? “Mom I’m thinking it’s potty time. Let’s do this thing!” Hardly. If he wasn’t going to actually tell me (so painfully obvious in retrospect) what exactly had I been waiting for? 

In the days that followed I interrogated every post-potty training friend I had. With a handful of exceptions I got little more than further fuel for my simmering irritation. Somehow none of these people could really remember how they had done it. What? Your child left the land of the diaper only months before and you don’t really know how it happened? Sure there was repeated mention of things like M&M’s and sticker charts, but I had been counting on something a little more specific. Something that seemed like an actual plan. Nothing of the sort was forthcoming.

So that left me with my wife and my son. The three of us were going to have to figure this thing out. Having no better ideas of our own we bought a bag of gummy worms, tossed the diapers and got to work. After what seemed (to me) to be entirely too much time, observable progress was made. There was actual pee in the actual potty. In spite of how much I had been sure it should be happening right.this.second, I don’t think I believed it actually would. The prospect of an underwear clad child had been entirely theoretical. However, with that small win I just knew it was time for all that smooth sailing the “wait till he’s ready” people had been going on about. Ahh, we had arrived.

We began venturing out into the world diaper-less and (mostly) unafraid. For days on end, everything was going well. And then (of course) it wasn’t. There were accidents and days of potty stand-offs and much collective gnashing of the teeth. We would have a good day or maybe a whole string of them and I would tell myself that we had done it. Go us! Mission accomplished. And then there would be the inevitable accident and I was suddenly sure that we should just give up now. Stop while we were behind. This was obviously never going to happen and all we were generating was conflict. Back and forth it went. Success followed by backslide followed by breakthrough and then the crash of yet another accident.

It was in the accumulation of brief, defeated spaces that followed each accident that I finally came to understand what all of those not-at-all-helpful advice givers had been getting at. As I scoured the internet for how to effectively launder pillows one morning (thanks for that one buddy) all of my irritation and disappointment finally added up to something true. It was a thing that came to me in a flash. Not a one of those parents could tell me how they potty trained their child because they didn’t know. Because there wasn’t one grand moment in which it happened. Because potty training is not a step-by-step/consistent progress kind of a thing. Maybe there is nothing that actually is that kind of thing. There will be poop and pee in all sorts of inappropriate places at every manner of inappropriate time. Not because you and your child just can’t seem to get the hang of it, but because there’s supposed to be poop and pee. Because that’s how we learn.

I had managed (somehow) to make it 35 years without truly learning that lesson and in low moments I wonder how much it has cost me. Luckily, there’s no answer to that particular question. At least not one that I’m likely to ever know. What I do know is that I’m learning. I know that today I have a been more gentle with myself than I was yesterday. I’m making space in my life for more accidents and I’m hoping that space is wide and safe enough for my boys. I hope they will allow themselves the grace to make all kinds of mistakes and I hope that they (eventually) make their way to the lesson. I also hope that they call me when their letter comes. I hope that when I tell them that I have no idea what they should do but that I’m certain they should stock up on stain remover, they will know just what I mean. Maybe they’ll even laugh.

6 thoughts on “The Potty Story

  1. I’m so glad you all have made such progress! If you remember that far back, how did you use the gummy worms to motivate? We’re stuck here: we’d love to reward pee in the potty but no pee actually has ever gone anywhere near the potty (it’s preferred location is “running down shins”) How do you cross the bridge from ‘you can have this if you xyz’ to ‘congratulations, have this thing you can no longer live without!’ Gah. I’m dying over here.

    • The only reason the gummy worms were well received was because he was ready. He actually wanted to pee on the potty. For his own self. There was no way to convince him other than stepping back and letting him decide. The more he could tell we wanted it, the less he wanted it for himself. We had to convince him that we could care less if he EVER learned and then he was in. I’m thinking our kids could be similar in this way. Lucky for us, Yogi just decided he was interested a bit sooner.

      After a handful of frustrating attempts we just told him we would wait until he was ready. Every few days we would check in. No pressure, just checking in. One day he said he wanted to go. Then…the gummy worms.

  2. Amen! We used a book that coached no rewards and a cold-turkey, no-diaper approach. She “got it” right away, but it still took 5-6 months for us to get to no accidents 98% of the time (when she is awake, that is). Anecdotally, that still seems like a pretty normal duration, no matter what method is used. You are totally right – learning something big like this just takes time and a certain amount of failure.

  3. This is so heartening to read. Thank you, thank you. We have been in a long back-and-forth journey towards potty training, and lately have had many frustrating accidents. I realized that I was attaching too much importance to it, though, and putting pressure on J., so am really trying to back off. We bought some pull-ups and said, if you want a break, we can do pull-ups. He does ask for them sometimes. Often not, though, and he does initiate more and more. I find that exciting new situations (birthday parties, etc) and evenings are the hardest for him.

  4. I haven’t actually pushed too much into the potty training. Punky has a potty, she wears pullups like diapers(mostly cause she’s a giant) and she sits on the potty, pants on, when Mommy sits on the big potty. But, other than that, I’m just trying to get her used to the potty, get her to where it’s habit and it’s ‘fun’ to sit on the potty. Of course, she’s 22 months, but even with this story and some others I’ve read, I’d love to “wait til she’s ready.” But, like you said, What if she’s not ready until school is right around the corner! Good luck! Sounds like you are trucking along. I look forward to reading more, if not to just learn more about the techniques you are using!

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