It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Potty woes

Not the kids. Parents. Over-enthusiastic parents.

“Nissa’s so excited about using the potty!” exclaims her mother, very excitedly. “She sits on it even when she’s fully clothed, and she says ‘poo! poo!'”

Much as I hate to quash this enthusiasm, I know a few well-placed questions likely will. Nissa is 17 months old, and while it’s not impossible, it’s exceedingly unlikely she is anywhere near ready for potty training. It’s not impossible, and I know it, because I’ve seen a child fully trained at 19 months. Wet and dry, night and day, able to get himself to the potty without prompting, without adult intervention at all, except for help with hand-washing afterward. I’ve seen it. Once in 14 years.

She likes to sit on the potty. She also liked to stand in it and drop toys in it. Does that mean she’s ready to use it? Your three-month-old delights in kicking out against things held to the soles of his feet. Does that mean he’s ready to walk?

She’s on the way. She’s not there. Or, almost certainly not. I tell these eager parents that most children this age don’t have control over the sphincter muscles. They may be aware of the goings-on in the diaper, but they can’t control them.

“Does she know in advance that something is coming?”

“Well, sort of. She’ll say ‘poo! poo!’, but you have to get her there RIGHT THEN, because once she tells you, it’s pretty much happening.”

Dad laughs as he describes how, the previous evening, Nissa had been playing at his feet in his study. “She’d just finished her bath and was naked. I hadn’t dressed her yet because this email, it would just take a couple of minutes, right? So then she starts staying ‘poo! poo!’, and I grab her by the armpits and race to the bathroom, but the poo is falling onto the stairs as I run. Plop, plop, plop!”

Mom and Dad laugh together, beaming with affection.

Yes, well. They’re describing the problem, all right. She knows what’s happening when it’s happening. She doesn’t know in advance that it’s coming, and she can’t stop it once begun. She just recognizes the sensation.

Which is good! That is one of the intial steps: to know what’s happening and be able to label it. She feels pee and she correctly identifies what’s happening. She feels poo and can tell you about that, too.

But until she can actually predict its arrival and hold it in long enough to make it to a potty? Wasted effort. Any and all parental efforts that result in the stuff being deposited in a potty are evidences of the parents being trained, not the child. (And me? I do not need to be potty trained.)

I say all this (about the muscles and the necessity of being able to predict and hold). Respectfully, kindly. Mom’s jaw firms a bit. Dad scowls. This is not what they want to hear. Mom carries on, enthusiastic.

“Well, we won’t push it, but we’ll keep on with the potty. At least we’re getting her used to it, right?”

To my mind, plopping a child without muscle control onto a potty is pushing it, but so long as Nissa’s not being stressed out, so long as it’s an entertaining game for her, there’s no harm in it. But really? At this point it’s a pointless exercise. I certainly don’t have the patience for it.

“So long as she’s enjoying it, sure.”

“And she can use the potty here?”

(Won’t be pushing it, they say, as they push…)

“Sure. Any time she wants.”

Which is what we’ve done all along. What she does with it is play. She’ll be using it when she’s got control over those muscles and is developing some personal interest in the thing, rather than playing a fun new game with mommy and daddy.

In, oh, 10 or 12 or 15 months or so…

October 14, 2009 - Posted by | Nissa, parents, potty tales, power struggle |


  1. I potty trained boy#1 for 18 months… I waited for boy#2 to be ready and he trained in 1 month. Interestingly, boy#2 was much younger when finally trained than older brother.

    That’s it, exactly. So many parents believe that potty training is a months-long, protracted affair, so they don’t dare wait until the child is 2.5 or 3! What they don’t realize is that it takes that long only if you start too soon, but when a child is ready, it goes very quickly.

    Comment by Jill in Atlanta | October 14, 2009 | Reply

  2. Funny you mentioned it. I had a mom tell me she had this “vibe” that her son was going to be a musical master because she held up a fisher price keyboard to his feet and he kicked at it. He was about 5 months old at the time. I don’t have children of my own, so I just chaulked it up to her being proud. I think I might feel that way too if I had a child! LOL I will admit, I’m always on the lookout for exceptional skills in the children I care for. I guess we all can hope. LOL

    While everyone has their personal strengths, and I love finding them/developing them in the kids, characteristics can only be ‘exceptional’ if they’re rare… as in, not many people can do it/are that way. If everyone’s exceptional, then exceptional is just… normal! It’s like how 75% of people consider themselves ‘above average’. Um… nope. By definition, only half of us are; the rest are below. Mwah-ha.

    Comment by Cole | October 14, 2009 | Reply

  3. Henry is 2.5 years. I figure we can spend six months “training him” or wait six months and have him train himself in a couple of days…when he is ready…when he understands and can exert control over himself. Right now, he will sit happily on the potty, he will do wee’s and poo’s in the potty, we cheer and he is very proud, but five minutes later, he will wet right through. He just doesn’t “get” it yet.

    Good luck with the eager parents!

    That’s a good description of a child who’s teetering on the brink. He has the physical skills (or most of them), he has the vocabulary, but he’s not quite there. You could push it a bit, with rewards, etc., but with pressure comes the risk that you push him in the other direction. Unless there was a reason — admission to some program required him to be out of diapers, or some such — your strategy of waiting is sound. Because you’re quite right, when he’s that close, it’ll be a matter of a few days.

    As for the parents? I take a live and let live approach: they can do what they like in their home; I’ll do what I like in mine! Mwah-ha.

    Comment by Tammy | October 14, 2009 | Reply

  4. My first son trained at just under 2.5 years. In less then a week. We had been asking him if he wanted to use the potty, he saw it, but we didn’t push. One day he told me he wanted red underwear. We took him to the store and bought it for him. Told him that if he wore them, he had to use the potty.

    1 week later he was in underwear all day, no accidents. It was quite easy – he was certainly ready. Night time too at 3 years old – we made him stay in pull ups a bit longer then he wanted at night!

    Boy #2 trained at 2 years 3 months, but it took about 2-3 weeks for it to kick in fully. He just turned 3, and does still have the occasional accident (only pee) – but only a tiny bit (“just a little bit wet, mummy” he says). I did push him, because we wanted him trained for a trip we went on. He still wears a diaper at night, tho, and probably will until he’s 6!

    However, with both boys we used cloth diapers, which helps kids understand and make the connection between peeing and feeling wet. I do believe this makes a HUGE difference.

    Comment by Naomi | October 14, 2009 | Reply

  5. This is such a great post. Illustrates the difference between parents of a first/only and parents (or providers) of more.

    My first son had zero interest in potty training. I finally kind of forced it on him, I’m sorry to say, when he was 3.5. By that time, his sister was 4 months old, and *I* was ready for him to toilet train. It only took him a day or two, though, so he was obviously ready physically (I just forced the psychological part :().

    Our daughter showed an interest right at 24 months. We went with it, but it took quite awhile, maybe a month to six weeks before she was fully trained.

    Our two youngest sons are 28 months and 5 months. The 2-year-old has been interested since around his second birthday too, and he uses the toilet about 75% of the time that he asks to sit on it (which happens once or twice a week). He’s gone both pee and poop multiple times, but we aren’t pushing anything. I’m happy to keep him in diapers (and give up my dream of toileting prodigy, heh :)) so long as there is a risk of him peeing on my floor. 🙂 By the time he’s 3 or so (or earlier if his interest increases significantly), I figure he’ll be ready to do it pretty quickly.

    And then we’ll just have ONE left in diapers. Glory.

    Comment by Alicia @ bethsix | October 14, 2009 | Reply

  6. Just realised I’m one of those parents! 🙂 Dammit.

    My son was trained in a couple of weeks at two and a half, just before he went to school.

    My daughter has been “naming her business” for a while, and showing interest in going on the potty, so I thought she was ready. I’ve been asking them to start in the creche as well. (*blushes*) I think they’ve been taking the same approach as you.

    I do find it handy that these days I can put her on the potty before her nap and she will do both pee and poo in it, so I don’t have as much bottom cleaning to do. But that may just be because I know her timing well by now.

    Thanks for this post. I needed to be told. 😉

    Comment by Mwa | October 15, 2009 | Reply

  7. I must admit that I have never understood the rush to potty train kids. Yes, diapers are expensive and kind of a pain…do you know what’s really a pain? Rushing to find the bathroom from the middle of the mall and trying to clean off a toilet while your child does the “potty dance” and inevitably touches everything in that public bathroom. Yuck. I’ll take diapers. 🙂

    Comment by Lisa M | October 15, 2009 | Reply

  8. Just to chime in some more…my oldest potty trained in, I swear, three days (she was already night-dry for about 5 months). She was 25 months old. My second daughter, I thought, ok, she’s 25, 26 months old, this’ll be a breeze! No. It was a full 7 months of a battle of wills. I’d try, she’d resist, I’d back off, she’d express interest, we’d try again…

    Comment by bridgett | October 15, 2009 | Reply

  9. We waited until our son was about 3.5 and when his teachers at daycare thought he was ready. My viewpoint was that he won’t go to kindergarden in diapers and his caregivers had WAY more experience with this than we did. It’s worked out pretty well. He’s dry at night, goes most days without an accident. Our biggest issues are when he gets too absorbed in what he’s doing that he doesn’t pay attention to the cues before it’s too late. But hey, that’s why we send extra clothes. 🙂

    Comment by Dani | October 15, 2009 | Reply

  10. Amen to this post! We took a lot of flack because we waited until our son was almost 3.5 years to start potty training. But he was very verbal and very attached to his diapers and who needs that battle? Not me, that’s for sure.

    One day he wanted underwear, *immediately*. So, a day of accidents at daycare followed. Two days of us paying close attention and taking him right away. One night of me claiming he wasn’t ready to be dry at night and him proving me wrong. That was it. I think he probably needed the mix of accidents and being taken to put all the pieces of the process together. We are so glad we stuck to our guns and didn’t push it earlier.

    Comment by Sarah | October 15, 2009 | Reply

  11. Love it! This post is a reminder that I have almost totally forgotten how potty training both of my kids (now 21 and 14) actually went.

    All I know is that by the time they started school they were both fully trained and any worrying I did previous to that is now only a very distant memory.

    Thanks. 😛

    Comment by Zayna | October 15, 2009 | Reply

  12. I think that children become potty-trained later now because modern disposable nappies are so comfortable. My grandchildren, in washable nappies, were out of them – without pushing – much earlier than most of their friends. I don’t think it matters one way or another. But another friend’s little boy was over 5 years old and his school trained him, because his house-husband father (don’t think that the fatherness part was relevant, but the addiction to games consoles rather than parenting was) couldn’t be bothered, and young Jake got to the age of enjoying that squidgy sensation and refused to relinquish it.

    Comment by Z | October 16, 2009 | Reply

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