Child Development and Parenting: Early Childhood
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Child Development and Parenting: Infants

Early Childhood Toilet Training Methods Continued

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Teaching little boys to use the toilet comes with an extra layer of complication. Boys can urinate while standing or sitting, unlike girls who always sit. Often, families find it easier and less messy to start off teaching little boys to sit down while urinating and pooping because it can be difficult for little boys to keep one activity separate from the other. A little boy who sets out to pee may end up pooping too. If the little boy is standing while this happens, a mess will occur.

At some point in time, it will become necessary to teach boys how to urinate standing up. This point in time will happen faster if male role models are around and the little boys see their Dad or Big Brother peeing while standing up. Parents just need to accept that learning how to urinate while standing up will be a messy process, and that their son's aim will improve over time.

Little boys can watch (with permission) Daddy or a Big Brother while they urinate standing up in order to get some pointers on how to do this properly. Parents can also make up games to help little boys improve their aim. For example, Daddy can paint a red bull's eye in the bottom of the potty chair and challenge Joey to hit the bull's eye on the center. Or, Daddy can tear up little pieces of toilet paper and litter them on top of the water in the toilet bowl and encourage Joey to "sink" them with his urine stream. Using oat ring cereal as floating targets for little boys to aim at is another popular method. Playing games like these encourages a sense of playful competition, usually makes the potty training process more fun, and improves boys' accuracy.

"Practice makes perfect" as the saying goes. Though children require explicit prompting and physical or verbal guidance for each step of the toilet training process during their early practice sessions, after a while they will be able to produce the sequence of desired behaviors by themselves with only a single prompt by Mom that they should get started. It is best to keep an open mind during the training process. Many children will go through several first practices without actually eliminating waste. Keeping this in mind, parents should avoid forcing children to stay on the potty until they have actually gone to the bathroom. Forcing a child to remain on the toilet for an extended period can be hurtful in two ways. First, some children may view the situation as a challenge, and thereafter see how long they can avoid using the bathroom so that they can somehow "win" the "competition". Second, other children who are unsure of or even fearful about the toilet will become even more unsure or frightened if they come to view the toilet as a punishment. Either situation can lead to otherwise avoidable problems and delays.

Rather than forcing children to use the toilet, parents should offer children plenty of reinforcements (i.e., rewards) so as to encourage their toilet use whether that use results in actual elimination or not. Parents should make lots of positive encouraging verbal statements, such as "Jimmy, you went poop in the potty. That's awesome!!" or "Mary, I'm so proud you sat on the potty while we read a poem together" during each step of the toilet training process. These verbal encouragements will help children to feel successful and want to repeat their successes.

Another way parents can increase children's interest in using the toilet consistently is to offer them small incentives to increase their motivation. Small but frequently offered tokens of parental pride work better for this purpose than large rewards that are not delivered until after substantial progress has been made. Many families choose to use a potty sticker chart. Parents can create a chart for the week or the month and reward the children with a sticker on the chart every time they successfully reach and use the toilet. Children can look at their stickers with pride, and use them to monitor their accomplishment. An alternative to using stickers is to reward children with one tiny bite-sized candy (or some other small valued item) each time children use the potty. Whatever incentives are offered, they will always work best when they are paired with lots of smiles, hugs, and specific verbal praise such as, "Jimmy, you remembered to go poop in the potty! That's so awesome! Good job!"

The use of small frequent incentives such as stickers on a chart can also be of great help in motivating children to perform a wide variety of desired behaviors. For example, children who forget to flush their waste or to wash their hands can be motivated to do so with a sticker chart designed to reinforce these specific habits. Click here to read more about how sticker incentive charts can be helpful in motivating desirable behavior.

Though small frequent reinforcements and incentives can be useful in motivating desirable toileting behaviors, the opposite is never true. It is never a good idea to punish children for unsuccessful potty sessions or for toilet accidents. While punishment does tend to have the short-term effect of motivating children's compliance with parental wishes, the long-term use of punishment tends to lead to children's defiant refusal to use the potty, or creates fear and avoidance of the potty. In a similar vein, parents should also be careful to not communicate disgust during the toilet training process. Subtle signs such as grimacing in response to the sight of a full potty container, and more obvious signs like saying "I hate emptying this potty," are both likely to be picked up on by children who may then become discouraged from wanting to use the potty out of feelings of shame, and embarrassment. Negative outcomes are generally avoidable so long as parents take care to stay positive and encouraging rather than punishing during the toilet training process.