Sunday, February 19, 2012

Potty Training, Part 2 - Operation Take No Prisoners

Note:  If you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Roughly five months have passed since the commencement of potty-training hostilities in our house.  For the first four months we largely avoided direct engagement, opting for a low intensity, target softening campaign to win the heart and mind of the enemy.  However, once Maria turned three in January, and no promise of capitulation was in sight, we felt we had no choice but to initiate operation Take No Prisoners, a ruthless, full-scale offensive.  A few short weeks later, I can report to you that barring a major setback, Maria appears to be on the verge of becoming one of us – one of the potty trained.  At this time, I guess you could say that we are mopping up the remaining resistance…

As far as early milestones go, potty training belongs in its own category.  I think this is because learning to walk or talk, weaning off the bottle, or eating passably with utensils are, to some extent, shared goals.  As parents, we are heavily involved in encouraging and facilitating the acquisition of these key skills; but there also seems to be some natural impulse at work inside the child that helps propel them forward.  They watch us doing these things, and they want to be able to do these things too; and that means the child is willing to engage in the learning process, albeit some more than others.  It creates some sense of a common purpose, which makes learning these critical skills a collaborative endeavor.  Not so with potty training. 

This is evident the first time parents try to explain to their children exactly what goes on in a bathroom, and how it will soon directly impact them.  At first, the toilet is just too big – and seemingly irrelevant – a concept for the little tykes to grasp.  They are wearing a diaper.  None of this long-winded potty stuff applies to them.  If anything, they’re questioning why you would choose to handle your business in this fashion.  It seems so complicated, their sincere and somewhat admonishing eyes tell you, and honestly, kind of gross.  You should do what I do, and find someone to take care of that for you.

And why shouldn’t it appear that way to them?  Every baby starts life without the slightest awareness of when, where, or even how to pee and poop.  For them, evacuating their bowels and bladders are as free of conscious thought as anything we do, like breathing, or singing when we’re alone in the car, or watching “The Real Housewives of Poughkeepsie.” 

Every baby subscribes unconsciously to the simple bumper sticker philosophy: ‘it happens.’

Seen from a toddler’s point of view, you start to understand just how foreign the concept of pottying on command must seem, and how the suggestion must strike them as utterly preposterous that they somehow might be capable of mastering this Jedi-esque trick. 

So the first crucial step, then, is to bring the child to a conscious awareness of the pottying impulse.  I’m still not sure quite how this happens, but I do know they will tip you off when they suddenly go missing, and you find them two minutes later crouched down behind the sofa in the family room, frozen stiff, little fists clenched, looking as though they are about to go for the world record in the standing broad jump.  Lost in concentration, or in convincing themselves that they are now perfectly invisible, it always takes them awhile to realize they’ve been discovered.  When they finally do notice you, they give you that spontaneously guilty expression, one of those first, crude, pathetically transparent efforts at faking innocence.  You can tell that somewhere in their head, that misguided survival instinct in their brain is instructing them:  Uh oh, there’s Daddy.  Don’t move.  He won’t suspect a thing if you just stay where you are.  So, you find yourself locked in a weird kind of standoff, with the child squatting and straining and staring guiltily.  And then, because you can’t do otherwise, you ask them the obvious: “Are you going poopies?”  And because they can’t do otherwise – they’re in way too deep by now – they reply “No!” with absolute conviction and a tone of denial that implies you have just offended them at the deepest possible level.   

Ah, the smell of shame! 

That’s when you know they’ve mastered the conscious awareness of the pottying impulse.  What comes next is the difficult part:  convincing them that they can, should, and must exert mental control over it.  It’s this second part which requires each parent to develop the brainwashing skills of a Branch Davidian.

If you think about it, potty training really is a form of indoctrination.  I say it jokingly, but the subtle and slightly sinister connotation is intentional.  After all, for most parents, it’s the first time that we have to grapple with the make-or-break reality that in order to produce the child that we want or need her to be, we must consciously and deliberately pressure her into changing, in some tangible way, who she currently is.  Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive here, but I don’t care for the feeling. 

Don’t get me wrong; I’m perfectly comfortable working unceasingly to mold my daughter into someone who won’t automatically try to dismember the poor soul who touches a single one of her horde of toys, or randomly throw half-filled sippy cups into crowds, or who won’t begin squealing like a stuck pig whenever unauthorized personnel so much as glance at her.  Call me crazy, but I see it as one of our primary parental obligations to teach our children how to comport themselves with other people without trying to eradicate them. The difference is that these are ongoing struggles; the end, if or when it comes, won’t be a sudden transition from one state to another.  It will just slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, begin to disappear from the landscape of her personality. 

No, my struggle begins when I’m not sure I totally agree with what it is that I’m being asked to do; and candidly, aside from the prospect of adding billions of used diapers to our landfills every day, and the ever-present threat of diaper rash, I have my own troubles seeing why we shouldn’t all wear Huggies.  Now, before you take a tone, take a moment and remember all the precarious and potentially life-threatening situations you’ve put yourself and others in throughout your life because you just had to find a bathroom.  Perhaps, like me, you’ve even pushed that envelope a tad too far once or twice and discovered that there are few forms of public embarrassment that can rival the strategically placed wet spot. I’ve sometimes spent an hour and a half curled up in a bathroom stall because I clumsily got the front of my pants wet while washing my hands.  Now ask yourself:  Would life be better or worse if you didn’t have to worry about these threats?  I think we both know the answer to that.

Besides, we are taught to believe that wisdom comes with age, right?  Well, there are thousands of perfectly happy old people out there who are using diapers (euphemistically referred to as “undergarments”) on a daily basis.  They must be onto something.

However, society has come down hard on this issue, and its decree must be honored, despite my own personal ambivalence.  Therefore, I begrudgingly accepted the task of coercing my daughter into believing that wearing a diaper is bad, and that holding waste inside your body until you can find an acceptably sanitary place to go is good.  And in doing so, I was forced to become a behavior modification specialist, employing whatever cult-like tactics were necessary to bring my precious toddler to heel. 

The key to indoctrination is to make the subject question their own identity.  As any parent knows, this is also an essential element of successful potty training.  The basic idea is to force our children to reject their existing view of themselves, and accept the version we’ve designated in its place.  Being a baby, which they had innocently assumed all along was a good thing (in no small part because we had been encouraging them to believe exactly that), must now necessarily be exposed to be a very bad and undesirable thing.  “You don’t want to be a baby, do you?” we ask accusingly as they kick against our attempts to snare their right foot with the leg-hole of a pair of undies.  “Babies go pee-pee and poopy in their diapers.  You’re not a baby.  No, you’re not.  You want to go pee-pee and poopy on the potty, like a big girl.”  We repeat this over and over, at least a million times, hoping that constant exposure to the words will subconsciously chip away at their self-image.  In public places, we point out examples of babies waddling around in diapers and say, “Do you see that baby over there?  That little baby’s wearing a diaper.  Eww, what a little baby.  You’re gonna be a big girl, and wear undies, so everyone knows you’re not a baby like her.”  Yes, it’s mean; but that’s potty training.  You’ve got to break down that last resistant link to infancy, and if it takes humiliating another kid and your own daughter in the process, well, that’s life in the big city.  Geez, all this potty talk must be affecting my brain.  I almost just said ‘that’s life in the big sh*tty.’  I’m almost sure that’s not what I meant to say.

Even as we are constantly trolling for our next opportunity to denigrate babies, we simultaneously begin extolling the abundant virtues and endless advantages of becoming ‘a big girl.’  We regale them with stories about the dazzling wonders of preschool, and amazing birthday party sleepovers, and the glories of pee-wee soccer.  We sell them on the myriad of benefits that come with not wearing a diaper: getting to choose their own underwear every day, allowances, cell phones, group-dating.  You vaguely suggest once or twice that if she gets rid of the diapers, can ponies be far behind?  Together you celebrate the fact that she is now allowed to touch the toilet paper.  You prove your growing confidence in her by letting her flush the toilet as many times in a row as she wants, even though after the first one you inwardly cringe a little more each time.  Using clear logic and a few simple illustrations, you demonstrate exactly how, once they’re potty-trained, they’re just a few shorts hops from driving mom’s car.  The entire world is the oyster of the big girl, and it can all be hers, if she can just learn to do this one thing...   

Once the war of psychological manipulation has had a chance to weaken the child’s resistance to change, we are ready for the training part of the potty training regimen.  For this part, nothing can beat pure, flat-out bribery for effectiveness.  Knowing how tough a cookie Maria can be, we went straight for the intensive, if slightly controversial, two-phase reward system.  The first part consists of establishing an immediate reward given each time the child uses the potty successfully.  For Maria, we used M&M’s for this phase, and we kept the message very simple:  go potty, get candy.  But as any parent knows, a child can tell you that she has to go potty, and you can rush her into the bathroom and put her on the potty chair, only to spend thirty minutes looking at each other, whistling, and/or twiddling your thumbs.  No matter how long you sit there, the child will not actually go potty, but will still expect a reward afterwards for having gone to the potty.  Five minutes after getting over the disappointment of being denied M&M’s, the child will come back, and the process will repeat itself.  And somehow, in one of those five-minute intervals, she will inevitably wet herself.

Not having this kind of patience, I looked to my teaching experience for a way around this problem.  As a teacher, one of the things I learned to do is called task analysis.  When teaching kids to do something new, I learned to break the something new down into its components, the individual skills that are needed in order to accomplish the larger task.  Of course, students must be able to do all of the sub-skills before you can ask them to try the more complex one.  When I applied the concept of task analysis to the problem of potty training, I realized there might be a way to circumvent the “potty/no potty/no M&M’s/accident” vicious circle. Instead of focusing on peeing and pooping on the potty, we would switch the focus to “keeping her undies dry.”  We made it a game.  If she could keep her undies dry, she would get a prize.  It was important that this prize be something more substantial than a smattering of M&M’s.  It had to be something we knew she would want.  As it turns out, Maria had gotten some Disney miniature figurine sets for Christmas that she really loved to play with.  So, Elizabeth found some more to use as prizes in our little game.  The key was to start small, so that Maria could taste success almost immediately, and become hooked on the feeling of getting something that initially didn’t cost her anything (yes, I know this is what drug-dealers do, but all’s fair in war and potty-training, right?).  In the beginning, it was keep the undies dry for an hour.  Each day, we would play the game one time.  After a few days of keeping her undies dry for an hour, we simply increased the amount of time before she got a prize:  ninety minutes, two hours, three hours, four hours, then all day.  She still got M&M’s for successfully using the potty, so she had the little rewards to keep her motivated, and then the big prize for a strong finish. 

In the end, she never really stood a chance.  Operation Take No Prisoners was a complete, and surprisingly brief, invasion, much like the first Gulf War.  Still, it was somehow a bittersweet accomplishment.  For the longest time, under constantly building pressure, she expressed a complete lack of interest in using the potty.  “I like being a baby, Daddy,” was her steady reply to all my best efforts to undermine her self-image.  Yet, once we brought in the heavy artillery, it was over almost before it got started.  Within the last two weeks or so, Maria has gone from someone who resisted with every ounce of her considerable strength the very idea of putting on a pair of undies, to someone who will now submit docilely to the procedure.  Not only that, but when nature calls (and it calls often), she will excuse herself politely and handle every step of the process by herself.  She has already forsaken her little potty chair and now uses it only as a stepstool to get to ascend to the adults’ porcelain throne.  She still needs a little help pulling up her pants and washing up afterwards, but she pulls ‘em down, climbs up to the big potty, does her thing, wipes herself (thoroughness is a bit of an issue), climbs back down, puts the little potty back where it belongs, and flushes the toilet without any assistance at all.  Within a few days of figuring out the rules, she was trying to game the system by peeing at fifteen-minute intervals, producing an audible tinkle-trickle each time, in order to get another fistful of M&M’s.  What she didn’t realize, poor child, is that she was playing right into my hand.  Yes, she may end up being the first three-year-old with a documented case of acne, but she will also have the bladder control of an Olympian. 

To get the results we needed, I had to shamelessly manipulate, bribe, and lie to my daughter.  I’ve had to muck around in her psyche, and bend her to my will like a twist tie from a loaf of bread.  Perhaps I missed my calling.  Maybe I should have started a cult, or worked for some secret government agency brainwashing people to commit all sorts of unspeakable acts.  On second thought, I don’t think I have the stomach for that kind of work. 

All right, society.  I’ve done your dirty work for you.  I’m going to go take a shower now, although I don’t think it will make me feel any cleaner. 

I’ve done my job.  I hope you’re happy.


  1. Yeah! Way to go Maria!
    And, as much as it bothers us to know how we manipulate our children's behavior, it is all to produce a great adult. The key here though is to be aware of how they are manipulating you as well and what kind of adult they are producing.

  2. Hutton - It's funny you say that. I used to tell my students to be careful because they were teaching me all the time what kind of teacher to be by their actions. It's definitely a two-way street with children of any age!