Parent Involvement in Pottying vs. Age of Child

Involvement? That’s not quite right.

So I’m having a hard time coming up with the right word- involvement? direction? leadership?

We as parents are always going to be involved in our children’s lives. But when they are young (like babies and toddlers) we just have to do a lot more physical care activities for them then when they are older.

We learn when they are hungry and give them food – then eventually they learn how to make their own sandwich. We learn when they are tired and encourage them to sleep – then eventually they decide for themselves when they need to go to bed at night or go take a nap during the day. We dress them to stay warm or stay cool – then eventually they choose their own clothes to wear. We bathe them – then eventually they learn their own hygiene maintenance.

Does this make sense?  It’s an inverse relationship – as the child’s age goes up our physical care activities go down.

So as kids develop and master new skills and new awareness, we hand over the responsibilities to them and hope they will make good decisions based on what we’ve taught them. We delight in their new independence. Please don’t tell my mother about the breakfast decisions I used to make in college.

As a parent of a 3-year-old, I firmly believe that the “threenager” I’m living with is really just a frustrated human who wants independence but doesn’t have all the necessary skills mastered yet. There is a big time of struggle as I am teaching new skills and he is struggling to figure things out. Often it is tempting to relieve his struggle and just do the task for him. But the pride that I see in him as he demonstrates his new abilities is worth the temporary struggle. And the feeling of relief (i.e. the “I’m so glad I don’t have to do that for him anymore!”) is glorious for me.

That’s how I felt when I no longer had to wrestle with my child to get a new diaper on…

Is Going Potty Any Different?

A baby or infant just does not have the motor skills to take themselves to the potty. So when we are practicing EC with infants (i.e. before mastering walking), we as the parents and caregivers are very involved in getting them to the potty in time. It’s a communication dance – the child may signal that they need to go and we take them potty OR we cue the child to release their pee and poop at a specific time (e.g. before getting into the car seat or before a nap).

But for some reason, parents seem to think that once the child is walking around and official diaper free potty training has begun, the child should be telling the parent all the time when they need to go and getting themselves to the bathroom. Then the parents get frustrated when accidents happen and end up putting the kid back in diapers to try again later. The thought that a toddler can reliably verbally tell us when they need to use the bathroom, and get there all by themselves is simply not an age appropriate expectation.

Age Appropriate Expectations

So what are age appropriate expectations? In general, the earlier you start teaching potty skills, the more you can expect to be involved in getting the child to the potty in time. The farther along you are in potty training, the more responsibility you can give over to the child.

Let’s go back to the food comparison – you start with a newborn and let them eat on demand, then over time you develop a schedule and at some point you notice that your child eats meals and snacks at the same time as everyone else in your family. How did this happen? It’s a partnership. It’s a little of the infant growing, increasing their stomach capacity and improving their ability to let you know when they’re hungry, and it’s a little of the parent/caretaker responding to the child’s request, deciding when to offer food, and helping the child anticipate when the next meal or snack will take place.

So in early diaper free potty training with a young toddler, I can expect that I will be the leader in getting my child to the potty in time. I will be watching the clock and watching the signals/body language. I will know what the plan for the day is (i.e. when we’re leaving the house and when we’re at home). I will help him remove his clothes and I will help him get onto the potty. In return for my awareness and consistent proactive action, I can expect that my young toddler will learn to trust me and my ability to get him to the potty in time, that he will develop a preference for using a potty instead of his pants, that he will hold his pee until the next opportunity, and that he will slowly start to tell me about his pottying needs.

For an older toddler, I may decide that when we’re at home (in our reliable environment) to give over the responsibility of getting to the potty in time to the child, while still being the proactive leader when leaving the house or at specific transitions during the day.  I’m still going to watch the clock and watch for body language, knowing that sometimes my toddler gets very focused on what he is doing and may not give himself enough time to make it to the potty. But ultimately, I’m not going to worry as much as I did with the young toddler.

For the preschooler, the only questions I’m really asking myself before leaving the house are:

  • When did he last pee?
  • How much liquid has he drank recently?
  • Should I insist that he go potty before we leave? (based on the length of time we’ll be away from a bathroom or how inconvenient it would be to find a bathroom)

And while at home:

  • Did we set him up for success with pants that he can remove all by himself?
  • Is he about to go to sleep? (then a last chance pee is always required!)

How do we get to this point of not thinking about the potty all the time?

From my high school teaching days, the word that makes the most sense to me is scaffolding.

You take the entire task of going potty and you break it down into small steps. Then you slowly teach the small steps to your child. When you observe their mastery of some skills, you hand over the responsibility to the child. For example, “OK, now you dump the potty into the toilet!”

When you observe their challenges with other skills, you either teach again, breaking it down into even smaller steps, or you figure out a different way to remove the barrier. For example, “Put your thumbs and fingers here to push down your pants… ok maybe we’ll just go without pants for a little while and keep working on that skill when you don’t have to pee.”

You do this all while having the consistent belief that your child will eventually master the skills and be potty independent.

So why start so early?

If we have to be more involved with getting an infant or young toddler to the potty, why even start?

That’s an excellent question and we’ll explore that in my next post!!