Deciphering Potty Training Communication

My Little Milkaholic and I love Curious George. We’ve seen every episode more times than I can count, and enough times that I can tell what episode it is from the intro while I’m in another room. We have all the books. They were the first stories he told me about as he was learning to talk. They are how we bonded with breakfast in bed. And they taught me how to parent.

The thing about Curious George is that although on the surface it seems like he unintentionally causes all sorts of trouble, George is like a toddler exploring his world. It is up to the Man in the Yellow Hat to look past the messes and see what George was trying to do. Can you imagine coming home to red paint all over the place? I’d freak. I’d yell. But when I take a page from the Man in the Yellow Hat, I’d stop to learn what My Little Milkaholic was doing – or in this case George (who was trying to make lots of valentines in a very short period of time through experimentation and problem solving). And so it is with potty training. I freak. I yell. And when I try to be like the Man in the Yellow Hat, I stop and try to decipher what MLM is learning or doing. We had a few false-starts with potty training, mostly instigated by me when MLM pooped all over the toy room and his bedroom, and then when he turned three and I wanted him to go to ski school. Since he had no interest, it’s no surprise it didn’t take.

I finally decided it was time, for reals no take-backs battle to the death, when he wouldn’t let me change his diaper and, comfortably stretched out in our bed, peed thoroughly through it. Enough was enough. Diapers were enabling the ultimate in laziness. We started with a good-bye-diaper party and the pant-less weekend (which lasted seven or eight days) just as the googles and facebooks told us to. I expected ease and a glittery montage of accident-free successful potty training; after all I’d waited until he was three and half. I was wrong. To my horror MLM peed wherever he was, looking me right in the eye and telling me he didn’t have to go. After hours of cleaning and yelling and trying not to yell, and googling and trying not to “make it a power issue,” I lost my ability to hold myself together. In an attempt to save everyone’s lives that day, I went for a walk with a friend, leaving The Best Husband Ever to deal with our Poopasaur.

Every good website and blogger tells us not to make potty training a power issue; not to make it about punishment. But few tell us how to keep your cool in the face of pee on the carpet and poop everywhere. Luckily I have a friend who is a psychologist, with the patience of a saint, (like her mother who to Breastfeeding is a Bitch, But We Lovingly Do it Anyway). After I stopped being irritated by her admonitions about making it a power play and the negatives effects of potty training punishment, she talked me off the ledge and told me about a psychological phenomenon called an extinction burst.

She described it to me something like this: Imagine every day you go to the vending machine and get the same treat. You love that treat. It’s your favorite part of the day. And then, one day it’s gone. You can’t have it. You might kick the vending machine, or shake it, or freak out. But you won’t do that for the rest of your life. It’s a burst that extinguishes the behavior of getting your treat every day. She said, “When a typical reward (for example, diapers) no longer occurs, there is a “burst” of the [negative] behavior. We increase the frequency and intensity of that behavior (for example, peeing on the floor) to try to get the reward we usually get (diapers). But eventually the behavior extinguishes.” (See, isn’t she smart?!)

Having regained my composure and the love of my child, we spent the evening substituting the yelling with kisses and cuddles and encouragements, and put him to bed in a pull-up. We spent the whole next day sitting next to the potty – not asking if he needed to go – watching Little Einsteins. And just like that his fit was over. A friend of mine also tried the pantless approach with her eldest son, which resulted in her younger son drawing all over the walls with his brother’s feces. “I eventually started spending large quantities of time out of doors in an effort to reduce the amount of carpet cleaning I was doing,” she said. “This led to allowing him to pee on trees, shrubs, etc. in the backyard. This method was too effective. He preferred going outside instead of inside, and consequently I caught him peeing at my cousin’s outdoor wedding in front of everyone. He repeated this public humiliation at my husband’s cousin’s birthday BBQ. I also caught him trying to poop in the garden because he didn’t want to go inside.” Aren’t children darling?

The HOW of not freaking out and punishing our kids comes from understanding what they are doing. Potty training is not about you toddler learning to put his poops and pees in the potty. It’s about autonomy and independence. It’s about learning to be a big kid. And children will do whatever they can to be in control. Survival is determined by our ability as parents to facilitate that control in a manner we can all live with. I had read that it takes 3-6 months for children to be fully potty trained; but tempted by the declarations of my husband and mother-in-law that our kid is a genius, I gave in to self-satisfaction of having nailed it the first week. (Of course, he sported the Winnie the Pooh look that whole week, because if he wore pants at all he peed or pooped in them.) In my self-congratulatory state, I jumped over so many of the unspoken-of-steps MLM would need to go through to become an independent little potty user. Because I like the toilet and not cleaning the potties and floor (why do those things leak?!) I assumed MLM would also want to use the toilet. Talk about perspective. Imagine my surprise when he had accidents rather than use the “big potty.”

My friend with the two sons also had a little girl, who was much easier to potty train because apparently girls are easier and because as her third, my friend was an expert. But even her daughter had her issues. “Her greatest struggle was going to the bathroom anywhere besides home,” my friend said. “She is still afraid of ‘bad potties’ at 5 years old. It took me quite a while to realize that ‘bad potties’ receive this designation because of how loud and hard they flush. She adamantly refuses to use hand dryers as well.” How obvious the revelations seem once we’re able to decipher what our kids are experiencing.

We finally got MLM into wear pants by giving him independence to use the little potties, which we kept in his bedroom and toy room on top of piddle pads. And, well, let’s be honest, we put him in pants and quickly delivered him to school to let it be their problem. And since he loves his teacher he saved his accidents for home. In fact, he would hold his pee for hours until he burst. WTF! I mean how hard is it to feel like you have to go, and “stop and go right away”?! I bit my tongue (hard) to keep from asking if he needed to go, and talked about how accidents were disappointing and how if he didn’t have them he got a gold fish. He understood all this and continued to hold it.

So I took a page from The Man in the Yellow Hat and took a step back and realized he was intentionally testing the boundaries of his bladder. He was getting to know his body and learning how long he could hold it, like when kids practice holding their breath under water just to see how long they can. And meanwhile he was training his bladder for a new world of not going the instant he needed to. He of course could not tell me all this; I had to decipher it. But once I figured it out, it changed the way we talked about it and took the reward/punishment language out of it – though we still incentivized with fish, also because I wanted fish.

It is remarkably hard not to ask a child if they need to go potty. It’s because we don’t trust (for obvious reasons) they will go when they need to, or when we need them to, like before we get on the highway. It is almost as hard not to accompany a toddler to the bathroom, at least at first. I did not have faith that MLM would get his penis in the potty, or wipe his butt, or not get distracted and forget to go and have an accident. And so, we both had to learn about independent potty time.

After MLM began refusing to go if I was in the room, or yelled at me to leave and tried to shut the door with me on the other side, I started to get the message. But it was not always as clear as that, specifically if he needed to poop. So I read the signs. When he said he needed to go, I’d ask if he wanted to me come with him or cheer him on. Sometimes he’d say no. And sometimes he’d say yes. I’d chant and clap and he’d laugh and relax and potty time would pass quickly. And then when I needed to go, my adorable MLM would come into the bathroom and chant, “Go momma go. Go momma go,” to both our delight. Once at our favorite restaurant, he refused to let The Best Husband in the bathroom with him and only calmed down after TBHE pretended to be the bouncer, keeping people out of the bathroom while he used it. Potty training finally got – dare I say it – fun. Or at least funny.

In the end, we got through the awake accidents by mommy (me) leaving town for a week and letting Grammy take care of him, with the promise of fish if he didn’t have any accidents while I was gone. It worked. And he’s been “trained” ever since. (Fingers crossed it sticks.) Though I hated almost every minute of potty training in some ways it, like Curious George, made me a better parent. It taught me to stop and try to see the world from MLM’s perspective rather than jumping to frustration. It taught us the next steps in our ever evolving communication skills. And it (sigh) forced me to be more patient. 


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