Thursday, September 27, 2012

Potty Time, Excellent

Okay, so.

I wasn't going to write about potty training on the blog because it seems a personal thing between us in the family, and I don't want the little man's future high school buddies to have Google access to his toilet training adventures... that just doesn't seem fair.  However, since mentioning that we'd finally leaped this immense parenting hurdle, I've had several inquiries about what we did to make things click.  I'd be lost without all the advice I've gleaned from other young parents, so in the name of knowledge sharing and this whole parenting thing literally taking a village, I thought I'd share some broad, general tips from our journey.  I also realize that if my current experience holds true, I'm going to have absolutely zero recollection of how we did this when it comes time to potty train son #2.  I seem to have this exhaustion-induced syndrome where I immediately forget all the details of the stage we've just passed (I'm hopeful the husband remembers something/anything regarding swaddling and infant nursing schedules, as that is all but a hazy dream to me...), so this will serve as a reference for us again a few years down the road as well!

In any case, there were some general ideas that got us through this experience which I think would be useful to anyone attempting to potty train a little boy:

1) Firm Resolve.
This sounds simple and obvious, but it was absolutely critical to our success.  We had several false starts at potty training, and while they may well have been because the little man wasn't quite ready, I think my flustered frustration and lack of total commitment played a part as well.  I was always too quickly willing to pull the plug on the whole operation and return to the (relative) simplicity of diapers.  This time around, my resolve was sparked by an e-mail from a good friend who was also in the thick of potty training and finally seeing some results.  She's one of the most loving and capable moms I know, and I'm always happy to take a page from her playbook; but the irony is, she wasn't even trying to give me a motivational speech or even any advice... all she said in regards to her newfound success with her son was "...we gave him no choice and stuck with it and it clicked." Something about this simple idea of having no other choice just lit a fire under me to get this thing done.  Sure enough, once I acted as if there was no other choice, things started to click for us as well.  Simple, but powerful.

2)  An attitude adjustment. 
I think part of my wishy-washiness in my previous approach to potty training came from feeling like if my son resisted then I was trying to foist some rite of passage on him before he was ready, creating lasting damage.  Not so.  This go around he was 3.5, and surely ready to make the leap... I just needed to change my internal monologue on the subject.  What I came to was this... I owe it to my son to give him the tools to survive in the real world... in this case, I owed it to him to make sure he wasn't the only non-potty-trained kid his age in his pre-school class.  I've found this simple mantra to make lots of the worst parts of parenting more palatable.  From vaccines to teaching table manners, some of the least pleasant things about parenting are the most crucial to creating capable, successful children and adults.  Applying the attitude that I was doing him a huge favor by potty training him made the whole thing much easier for me to bear.

3) Understanding boys.
I grew up in a girly house as one of three sisters.  Until I married the husband, my understanding of the male species was based entirely on my experience with my dad (who happened to grow up with three sisters and is definitely an advanced male when it comes to dealing with women) and the brief, failed, ridiculous relationships of my early 20s.  I've learned a lot about men from shacking up with the hubs for the last eight years, but now, with this whole raising sons situation, I'm REALLY learning. The first thing to know about boys and potty training?  Many don't do it until they are four, or close to it.  And it takes a lot longer than it does with girls. So taking a page from friends with daughters, or my mom's stories of going through this with us, or even those rare friends with an unusually advanced son is kind of worthless.   Let your dude take his time, as hard as that can be.  Patience is key.  Sweet, crucial, sometimes seemingly out of reach patience.

But the major thing to know about boys? They have a limited ability to multi-task.  If a little boy is immersed in something, say, lining up all his trucks in a row or disassembling a remote control, he is not going to interrupt his activity to focus on something else (like running to the bathroom).  This ability to have a single-minded focus never seems to really change (see: my dad with the Sunday New York Times, my husband with New England Patriots football).  So it follows that, in the beginning, they need to be reminded almost relentlessly to use the bathroom.  It feels like harassment, but asking every 15 minutes in the beginning turned out to be so helpful to our success.  It was as if it literally hadn't occurred to him until I asked (see: taking out the trash or switching laundry loads for later-in-life male brain examples).  Keeping this ability to maintain a singular focus in mind brings me to our next item...

4) A schedule that sets you up for success.
We have been totally on the go all summer.  Swimming lessons, playdates, travel, and beach days have dominated our schedule.  Plus, the husband works at home, so for all of our sanity, I do my best to get up and out with the little man every day, and spend our days adventuring out in the world rather than at home getting in one another's hair.  HOWEVER.  I found that the early days of potty training are best done close to home.  Like really close to home.  Like venture out to your backyard or driveway, but not much farther.  After our slammed summer schedule, I looked at the calendar at the end of August and saw nearly two good solid weeks with nothing planned.  I had to reign in all my little social butterfly, Libran multi-tasking, adventure-seeking tendencies to keep it that way, but here was the perfect window of time to seriously hunker down at home and get this done. And right in time for preschool.  We literally did not go anywhere or do anything except hunker here and focus on the task at hand for the better part of ten days.  It sucked, and I went slightly batty around day five, but it was very, very worth it in the end.  If you find yourself with an unscheduled period of time around when you think your little one might be ready to give this a go, I say toss out the social schedule, hunker, and go for it. 

5) Incentivizing (aka good old-fashioned bribery). With buy in.
I'm not talking about a trip to Disney World here, I'm talking about a simple system of rewards tied to positive actions... another thing that seems to be critical to the success for boys (and men, for that matter, no?).  This whole phenomenon seemed unsavory to me at first, so I avoided it on previous tries, but I had heard enough bribery success stories that I was ready to go all out this time around.  
The morning that I made up my mind that we were going to do this, I sat the little man on my lap and told him we were starting a new project.  We were going to learn to use the potty.  Every time he went in the potty, he would get an (organic, hippy, vitamin C enhanced) lollipop.  I Google Imaged "lollipop" and let him choose his favorite picture (see above).  Then we talked about new toys he might like... he has been super into this one DHL Delivery truck at our local toy store (which we haven't purchased for him because really?  Another truck?) and we've also been loitering a bit at the kayak outfitter where I used to work, where he's had his eye on some kayak shaped party lights for his room. We found photos of these and printed them as well.  Finally, in good old Word, we created a potty training chart with the days of the week on it... I let him choose the font and color.  And print.  

We then created the above pictured Inspirational Refrigerator Montage.  I feel like he had extra buy-in in the process because we created it together, and put it up together, right on his level.  Sure enough, the lollipop incentivizing was a miracle worker.  It was hard to enforce this and I felt like a meanie, but we didn't dole the lollipops out for near misses... only successes.  When a successful attempt was made, a lollipop would appear with a moderate amount of fanfare, and he'd get to put a sticker on the chart.  When we hit a week of successes with minimal accidents and a really good faith effort on his part, we headed over to the kayak store and got the lights.  My old boss made a big deal and took a photo of him with the lights, and he was pretty much the proudest kid I've ever seen.  You could see he really felt like he had earned something, and I think the pride had a snowball effect that made him want to keep going.  He had gotten a taste of what it feels like to attain a goal, and that's pretty powerful stuff for the human spirit at any age.  Not to mention that the colored kayak lights give his room a groovy, Greg Brady-esque vibe that we're all enjoying.  Win and win!

6) Keep things positive and low-key.
This is a messy, set-back filled, bleach cleaner addled, laundry intensive, sometimes seemingly futile process. Of all the things we've gone through as parents so far, including the dog days of sleep training, this has been the hardest one in which to keep my cool.  However, you MUST keep your cool... at all costs.  Melting down, yelling, or expressing intense emotions will only make your toddler dig in and resist even more.  Sounds simple, but like most things in life, it is the seemingly simplest things that can sometimes be the hardest.  If I had this to do again, I would not do it 7 months pregnant, as a hard, endorphin-giving run in the morning and an XL glass of wine in the evening would have gone a long way towards augmenting my patience, but I called upon myself to dig deep and not react during any of the accidents and the husband did the same. We just offered a simple message about trying again next time and a quick, emotionless clean up with each setback, and I think this lack of drama kept us on the road to success.  Lots of deep breathing and plenty of encouragement from friends and family were key to keeping the patience coming. 

7) Slowly but surely, turn down the fanfare and treat this as the mundane act that it is.
We're about five weeks into this process and going strong.  Once again getting buy in, I let the little man choose a bunch of cool undies (fire truck boxer briefs have to be the cutest thing I've ever seen), and he's been successfully sporting them for school, soccer, and beyond.  We've moved to pull ups for naps and nighttime and they've been great.  Slowly, we're working towards making this potty thing just an average part of our life and not a cause for daily celebration.  I started by taking down pieces of the Inspirational Montage one at a time.  He hasn't asked after any of them. Now all that is left is the chart and he hasn't put a sticker on it in two weeks.  If he asks for a lollipop (and he does maybe three times a week), we'll give one, but if he doesn't, we just proceed on without a hullaballoo.  A cool art project is due to come home with him from school tomorrow, and I'm planning to swap out the art for the potty chart, and then that will be that.  Potty becomes routine and not prize-worthy.  And hopefully that's that!  All's well that end's well.

That being said, let me add some disclaimers here:
1) I am certain that we'll have accidents and regressions in our future, but I'm hopeful that by sticking to all of the above tactics, we'll be able to keep soldiering through and keeping this guy in boxer briefs for good.

2) A totally unintended fringe benefit of this process?  In the times that we'd be hanging out in the bathroom waiting for something to happen, we found it helpful to count to ten to get things going. The little man was really into this and it actually seemed to help the process along.  Out of boredom, we started switching up the languages we'd count in.  At the end of five weeks, little J now counts to ten in Spanish, French, and Japanese.  Totally unintended, slightly hilarious, and a good party trick to boot :). 

3) I am certain that everything that I've said has been said elsewhere by someone far more qualified to dispense this type of advice, and I'm also certain that counter-advice is out there that would make us look like fools for using any one of these approaches.  I just wanted to share what worked for us, in our particular set of circumstances, with this child. If any of these little tidbits so happen to help anyone who has inquired about this, awesome.  If not, the best thing I can say is to have faith in yourself as a parent and in the knowledge that these kids aren't going to go off to high school in dipes.  This will happen.  All in good time.

And finally, the products we loved along the way:
1) Seventh Generation Disinfecting Wipes (for accidents and potty clean-up)
2) Pampers Kandoo Flushable Wipes (for kid clean-up)
3) Baby Bjorn Potty Chair 
4) Yummy Earth Organic Lollipops
5) Huggies Pull-Ups for Boys
6) for a fabulous selection of easy-to-order undies (which are shockingly hard to come by in the right size at your local brick and mortar store... at least around here)
7) And, last but not least, of course the Sea Kayak Party Lights.  What toddler's room would be complete without them?
Good luck, friends!  And please share what worked for you.
It takes a village, people.


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. You are brilliant. I think you should write a parenting (and cooking? and lifestyle?) book called, "It Takes a Village, People". I'd buy it.

  3. I almost wish I had a kid I needed to potty train to try out all this great advice! Would this work on a dog? ;) Love the Kayak party lights (there's really no doubt whose kid this is) and thought it was so sweet & thoughtful to make the charts & incentive montage WITH Toddler J. Very cool Mommying!! Laughed out loud at the "boys can't multitask" bit - I was reading it to Mike when he got a text and I had to start all over. HAHAH!!


  4. Wait, what about his other incentive?

    1. Might this be a certain NYC dweller inquiring? :)
      A little holiday is still in the cards... just not so dangerously close to my due date. That was some ill-planned promisin' on my part... oops.

      If you're inquiring about the truck, however, that totally happened... it just seemed less momentous than Kayak Light Day for some reason. Nothing is quite as groovy as the kayak lights.