Many parents have questions about toilet training, especially when every “expert” seems to have a different opinion about the best time and the best way to do it. This column will help parents understand the meaning behind the task of toilet training and will provide tools to help parents find their way through the thicket of contradicting advice.


Claiming their body: An infant’s parents basically “own” their infant’s body. The parents (and other caretakers) figure out what an infant needs and make the appropriate response. For example, an infant’s participation in eating is limited to crying out and taking in the food when it is presented. Likewise, a baby’s participation in toileting is limited to responding to urges, with all other responsibilities left to parents.


Over time, children claim their own bodies, first by participating with their parents in jointly taking care of their bodies, and then by gradually assuming the care of their bodies. Children’s success in claiming this personal territory requires parental investment: Mommy’s pleasure when a child begins to reach for his or her shoe to help Mommy put it on; Daddy’s pride when a child begins to spontaneously slip an arm into a shirt; the parents’ excitement when a child gets partially dressed without help.


Children claim the land of their bodies because they have an inner drive to be independent and autonomous. The pleasure associated with this drive is apparent each time a child masters yet another task and seems to grow an inch inside. Children want to do for themselves and by themselves. They want to be big, like Mommy and Daddy and older siblings. And few things are more pleasurable for a child than this feeling of being big.


But all is not this simple. Autonomy is not just exhilarating — it is also sometimes scary. Children gradually recognize the reality that they are ultimately alone in their own skins, there is no magic in the world, and their competencies can go a long way but cannot guarantee absolute success or safety. There was much comfort in remaining a baby, living in a world in which they imagined that everything would be done for them — just right — by parents who were infinitely wise, knowledgeable and protecting. It is for this reason that all children struggle -- for years -- with the mixed blessings associated with growing independence. Each child needs to cycle and recycle through independence and dependence, progression and regression, at their own pace and in their own way.


Toilet mastery: The mixed feelings that a child has about autonomy affects their development of toilet mastery. We call the achievement “toilet mastery” to emphasize that the child is not just “trained” with a skill, but is provided an opportunity for emotional growth through mastery. It is important that a child develops the relevant skills, the mechanics of self-care with regard to toileting. But even more important, a child should come to feel a connection with and ownership of his or her toileting, a pleasurable willingness to take responsibility for his or her own body, and a pride in taking care of it. How can such emotional growth best be achieved?


Emotional growth most reliably results from facing, struggling with and resolving a challenge. Children grow when they are presented with challenges that are not too easy or too hard. As so often is the case, finding the middle ground is the best way to help children. The challenge cannot be so great that the child does not have the ability and motivations to achieve success with effort and willpower. On the other hand, if the challenge is so minimal that achieving the goal is a piece of cake, children will achieve success quickly but without the effort that is necessary for true emotional growth.


Timing the task: If children are asked to achieve toilet mastery before they begin to struggle with the conflict of independence and dependence in earnest, around age 2, we may teach a skill; but the child is not able to use this experience to gain a greater ownership of his or her body.


At the other extreme, children who are 4 and older often will be able to achieve toilet mastery without much effort, acquiring the skill without necessarily struggling with the issue of bodily ownership. At that age, the issue may not longer be on the front burner, depending on whether or not they have worked it out reasonably well during the preceding years. Children who have not struggled successfully with the emotional issues involved in toilet mastery sometimes don’t truly take ownership of their toileting and may even remain susceptible to regression in their toileting at times of stress.


Parents will be successful in helping their child achieve toilet mastery by finding the right time and emphasizing their child’s own inner wish to be big and to be like Daddy or Mommy. Parents should show their pride when their son or daughter takes ownership and responsibility for their body: “Mommy (Daddy) is so proud that you are noticing when your body is telling you…,” for example. Rewards, such as stickers, are fine, but if overemphasized, they can distract from the real motivation that parents want to reinforce – the child’s inner wish to grow and the pride that he or she feels about that. Rewards distract from the most important and humanizing motivations: a child’ pride and the parental pride in their child taking ownership of his or her own body.


Toilet training should not be easy. If a child did not struggle with the loss involved in giving up dependency and some parental care, the child would not truly be engaging the emotional challenges of toilet mastery and the potential for emotional growth. So, parents should find the time when their son and daughter seems to be about ready, and encourage their child through the process, knowing that his or her autonomy and pride will be enhanced by their mutual efforts.

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