Toilet Training Without Tantrums Note

Editor's Comment: John gets so many questions about toilet training. I am reprinting a column from two years ago; with an additional note. Almost every question received about toilet training has been covered in John's book Toilet Training Without Tantrums.

In a column about two years ago:
I have addressed the issue of toilet training in previous columns and books, most extensively in Making the "Terrible" Twos Terrific! (Andrews McMeel, 1993), where an entire chapter is devoted to the subject. [See Note Above] My advice has been to time the initiation of training to certain readiness signs, including active curiosity concerning the toilet, which may not emerge until some children are nearly 3.

Over the last year, my recommended method - which I term "naked and $75" - has been the subject of extensive media coverage. Let the child walk around the house naked from the waist down (wearing only a large tee-shirt, perhaps), put the potty where it is easily accessible, and correct mistakes matter-of-factly. The $75 is for carpet and furniture cleaning. Feedback from parents who have used this method has been voluminous and has caused me to revise my advice concerning readiness signs and timing.

The overwhelming number of parents who have employed "naked and $75" and shared the results with me have reported success. The failures have almost always concerned children older than 2 years, 6 months. This is consistent with the opinions of certain other researchers, including Dr. Bruce Taubman, a pediatrician with Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, who has said he has a "hunch" that the critical period for this training lies between 24 and 30 months. The anecdotal evidence in support of that "window of opportunity" is in my judgement strong enough to justify a warning to parents that waiting after 30 months greatly increases the likelihood of problems, including outright refusal to cooperate, withholding of stool, and chronic wetting/soiling by children older than 3. This, regardless of the approach employed.

As for the matter of readiness signs, I am now convinced this is so much psychobabble. I apologize for ever giving parents the impression that toilet training is a delicate issue that must be approached with a keen eye for signals from the child that he/she is psychologically capable of dealing with the requirements of the process. I've heard from a significant number of parents who've had relatively quick success with 18-24 month old children, many of which were exhibiting no "readiness signs" at all. In fact, I've yet to hear from a parent of a pre-2 year-old who reported failure. It is of further note that not one parent of a pre-2 has said anything but that toilet training was almost effortless.

On a recent "NBC Later Today," I debated a California pediatrician who was insistent that training a child younger than 2 required undue "force" and was likely to result in great frustration for both parent and child. Messages of this sort - and they are the norm - reinforce the fiction that toilet training is fraught with psychological implications, that one misstep in timing or procedure can result in damage to a child's psyche. As reported in The New York Times (January 12, 1999), 92 percent of children in 1957 were toilet trained by age 18 months. There is no evidence, anecdotally or otherwise, that the typical pre-1960 toddler was "pressured" into or sustained psychological injury as a consequence of early (by today's standards) training.

To summarize, I am presently of the opinion that the optimal time for toilet training lies between 18 and 30 months, and that waiting until 30 months increases the likelihood of problems. I am inclined to say that in the absence of developmental problems, the best of all possible times is between 18 and 24 months, even in the absence of so-called readiness signs. Admittedly, that recommendation will garner little professional support, but I am comforted by the fact that parents and children seem to have fared better where toilet training is concerned before professionals began making pseudo-scientific pronouncements on the subject. With any age child, the process needs to be low key but straightforward. Any attempt to micromanage the child (hovering, asking repeatedly if he has to use the toilet, and the like) during this process will almost certainly create problems.

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