Little boy sitting on potty with newspaperI’m sitting in a local, neighborhood, organic, co-op run, farm-to-table café right now (Starbucks) enjoying a modestly portioned quinoa-kale nugget (giant Frappucino).  All around me people go about their business: reading, flirting, typing terrible screenplays on expensive laptops, and banging on the door to the bathroom door saying “Get out NOW!”  That last one is a little weird, but makes more sense when you consider the source: a frantic mom of a toddler who is doing what could be described as a rather extreme version of the “pee-pee dance.”  Her daughter is giggling and enjoying the spectacle, but Mom is panicked that her daughter will pee right on the floor of the Starbucks. As they made their way out of the bathroom, I shot the frazzled mom my best “hey-look-at-me-I’m-nice-and-I-have-a-baby-with-me-I-won’t-judge-you-and-it’ll-be-OK” look.  Maybe it was the pureed pears smeared across my hairline (that I had not noticed for hours) that clued her in that I would not judge her.  She smiled at me and said, simply, “Week 2 of potty training.”  She then collapsed on the floor/exploded from exhaustion/began speaking in tongues. OK, that last part is not true.

Potty training.  This is a skill that, as it were, really separates the men from the boys.  Some preschools deny admission, charge extra, or simply reserve the right to be snotty if kids are not 100% continent at all times.  Parents have visions of buying giant teen-sized diapers with pictures of Justin Bieber on them or constantly SteamVac-ing their entire house to prevent a build-up of piddle piles. The truth is, for the majority of kids, potty training is pretty easy.  Many kids are excited about getting underwear or about doing the same things that a parent or sibling does and with a little coaching (or well-placed cheerios floating in the bowl) are able to catch on and just go with the flow (sorry!).  There are classic, wonderful, kind of fascigusting (a new word I just made up that combines fascinating and disgusting) books that you can read (4,987,982,399 times) to your toddler and similar videos to watch (and kind of gag at).  Most kids really do pick it up, even if it takes (what seems like) forever.

However, some kids, usually ones who are a little pricklier to begin with (maybe with some sensory or processing issues), really struggle.  They don’t care if they are wet, they cry and avoid the toilet like it has snapping alligators swimming in it, and they fight and fight long enough that that diaper just goes right back on those little buns.  For these kids, there are some strategies that help you get over the hump and build confident, competent little pee-ers and poop-ers.

For kids who are really afraid of change in general or have specific fears about the toilet, the first thing I recommend is putting a program in place that really lets the kid know that YOU value the acquisition of this skill.  That was a really fancy way of saying, “bribe ‘em.”  I know some of you, reading that sentence, are sharpening your talons and already writing a note to me about how bribing kids to do everyday stuff makes them serial killers who cheat on their MCATS.  I am telling you, with 100% confidence, that a little bribe can really help and is not the same thing as begging a tantrumming child to be quiet by buying them a toy.  That’s bad.  I have put in writing my feelings on nonsense like that.  It’s the worst.  I’m talking about artificially creating motivation (which increases ability to learn new skills) to try something that is difficult.  Trust me—skill acquisition does not happen because of reinforcement.  You can offer me 20 million dollars right now (HIGHLY motivating!) and I STILL CAN’T DO CALCULUS.  However, if you paid me 1,000 bucks a pop, I would be MOTIVATED to go to every single calculus class on the block and, boom, I know calculus.

Here’s the deal:

  • Start by offering a “thing” (iPad? Cookie? Haiku composed by a modern master?) that your kid really really likes (or a voucher for that thing if you can’t give it right away) every time your kid is willing to sit on the toilet.  Fully clothed.  No real demand.  Just: you sit, you get.
  • After a few times, they will go in on their own.  Trust me.
  • Once they have become comfortable with that (a few days, but you know your kid and you know what comfortable looks like), up the ante so they have to pull their pants down and sit.
  • The next step is, obviously, that they sit bare-bottomed (again, you decide for how long, but PLEASE don’t make them sit for more than a few minutes).
  • If they get to the point of really sitting on the potty, make a really big deal (like “free facial and night-nanny arriving at your door with a bottle of wine” level of big deal) if they happen to pee or poop. 
  • Once they have had about 2 accidental pees or poops, change the game a bit so that they get the “thing” (make sure you allow them to pick a new thing if they are bored with the old thing) ONLY IF THEY PEE OR POOP.  You can allow them to sit for as long as they are comfortable during this phase (we’ll shorten it in the next phase).
  • Once they are peeing or pooping most sessions, start to shorten the interval (the time that it takes for them to go).  Have a timer in there and offer a bigger “thing” the faster they go.  The goal is that the feeling of cool porcelain against their little cheekies will signal them to “let go” into the toilet RIGHT AWAY.  No one likes a person who spends a lifetime in the bathroom.  Again, use your judgment about what is right for your family.
  • Now that all of this hard work is done, you need to up the ante one more time: only offer them the “thing” if they GO ON THEIR OWN WITHOUT YOU ASKING THEM/TELLING THEM.  This is to avoid their dependence on you to schedule them.  Kids who never develop this “signal-detection” are the ones who are prone to more accidents.
  • One of the interesting things about toilet training is that it represents the transition of the “management” of a biological function from “gut” control to “brain” control.  Think about it: when you are a little baby, you don’t pee because you think you should or you are in a certain place, you pee because your wee little bladder fills up and signals the muscles to move in ways that release urine (Open Letter to the Parents that Make Their Babies Poop in a Bowl/Elimination Communication Parents: Eww. Love, Liz).  Any time, any place.  As adults, we don’t (hopefully) just “let go” because we get full, we feel a little long-distance call from our bladders that signals “go find a hole to pee in.” We know what happens if we ignore that signal.  It becomes stronger and stronger until the urge is overwhelming.  The more we listen to the “far away” signal, the more sensitive we are to those urges.  When we offer reinforcement to kids for using the bathroom AND for telling us when they have to go, we are strengthening their ability to recognize and act on those signals.
  • Once things are peachy at home, start branching out as early as possible.  You want any toilet, anywhere to signal “OK TO PEE HERE.”  Some kids associate their home turf as the only place they can pee and this presents problems out in the world.  Practice using the toilets in other places when it IS NOT AN EMERGENCY so you can be all relaxed about it.  Your kids will pick up on your mood and feel more relaxed as well.
  • As always, these are just some starting points.  If you are really struggling with toileting issues, check in with your pediatrician. You can also email me at with questions about your situation.  I will be happy to answer easy fixes from afar, and I can refer you to someone in your area if you need more personalized solutions.  Happy peeing!

–Liz Schwandt



One thought on “Potty Training Secrets

  1. So helpful! Thank you to the writer. The incremental approach with specific targets makes perfect sense now that the writer has said it !

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