John Rosemond July 2018 Columns
Copyright 2018, John K. Rosemond
I Spy Toilet-Training Atrocities
Strolling through my go-to grocery store the other day, I happened down the Baby Products aisle where I spied packages of toilet-training pants featuring pictures of happy children who looked at least three, some as old as five. The first question that came to mind: Why would a five-year-old who is continuing to eliminate on himself be happy? Perhaps a spokesperson for the unnamed manufacturer of said diabolical apparel will answer that question for me.
In the mid-1950s, a study done by researchers from Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Princeton determined that close to 90 percent of 24-month-old American children were accident-free and had been for at least one month. That means 9 out of 10 children were completely toilet trained by no later than 23 months. And then, in the 1960s, along came the Mr. Rogers of pediatrics, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, who claimed, without a shred of scientifically-obtained evidence, that the attempt to toilet train a child under age 24 months requires “force” and is therefore psychologically damaging.
In addition, Brazelton fabricated a wholly fictitious set of ten or so behavioral “readiness signs” that he insisted be present before toilet training is attempted. Mind you, the only readiness sign to which mothers in the pre-psychological parenting era (pre-1960s) paid attention was their own readiness to stop changing and washing diapers. Almost instantly, Brazelton’s “child-centered” approach to toilet training became the gold standard in the pediatric community. As pediatricians began advising mothers to hold off training until 30 to 36 months lest they wreak psychological havoc on their kids, a process that had taken 3 days to a week, on average, began taking months, even years. Likewise, mothers went from being fairly nonchalant about the entire affair to being toilet-training basket cases.
The problem rapidly expanded to the point where some psychologists began specializing in toilet training. In Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1970s, a psychologist advertised an in-home toilet training service. Yes, he would come to someone’s home and either toilet train the child in question or walk the parents through the process. Books on how to toilet train began to proliferate. (I even wrote one in which I simply described how it was done before Brazelton threw his monkey wrench into the matter.) After all, where children are concerned, there is nothing new under the sun (despite propaganda to the contrary).
Do parents need specialized professional training to properly teach children to feed themselves? No, they do not. Thankfully, no one with capital letters after his or her name has ever claimed that improper spoon training will begin a child’s descent into psychological pandemonium, even criminality. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time. There must be a market there, somewhere.
After all, there are several similarities between spoon training and toilet training. First, they both involve the digestive system. Second, they both involve messes. Third, said messes must be taken care of by parents (or nannies, as the case may be). Surely someone smarter than myself can make a case for waiting to teach children to feed themselves until they are at least five, lest an emotional apocalypse ensue. Said someone – a Ph.D. psychologist, of course – could come up with spoon-training readiness signs, as in, “child shows no significant anxiety at being handed a small spoon covered in soft rubber.”
Then the recommendation that “child be allowed to handle and chew on rubber-coated spoon for at least a week before training in self-feeding actually begins.”
Within five years, we will have therapy and medication for “self-feeding anxiety disorder.”
I’m being a tad, but only a tad, facetious. Nonetheless, history strongly suggests that if a child-rearing problem doesn’t yet exist, the professional community can be counted upon to remedy the situation.
Let’s Revisit ‘Psychological Thinking’
I call it “psychological thinking,” referring to the tendency among parents of the last fifty years or so to attribute bad behavior on the part of a child to so-called “issues” that are thought to be causing emotional tensions of one sort or another. That is, in fact, precisely what my graduate school professors taught; to wit, that misbehavior was nothing more than a symptom of such tension, and for that reason, punishment would only make matters worse.
As psychological theory oozed into popular culture, this imaginary notion went, in contemporary terms, viral. During my private practice years, the typical parent(s) who solicited my advice concerning an ill-behaved child seemed to think that knowing the hypothetical source of the problem in question was tantamount to solving it and that discovering said source required a highly-trained psychologist – me! It pains me to admit that for more than a few years I believed I was capable of deep-diving into a child’s psyche and bringing up such buried treasure – or trash, as the case may be.
It slowly dawned on me that I was pulling this stuff out of thin air, that there was no empirical means by which such speculations could be verified; therefore, they bordered on delusional. I further realized that these delusions absolved ill-behaved children of responsibility for their various anti-social outbursts and projected said responsibility on the parents. By such pseudo-intellectual alchemy, the misbehaving child was transformed from a perpetrator into a victim deserving not of discipline but great understanding and sympathy.
An example is the single mother who recently sought my help regarding a young teenage boy who was behaving disrespectfully toward her. She believed her son was “angry” at her for divorcing his father who just happened to be verbally abusive. Mom wanted to know how she could help the boy resolve his “anger issues.” It did not help that another therapist had told her that her son’s verbal abuse was indicative of depression. Psychobabble knows no limits.
The inevitable consequence to a parent of psychological thinking is what I call “disciplinary paralysis.” As was the case with the mother in this example, parents who engage in psychological thinking are unable to discipline firmly. They believe, after all, that THEY are to blame for their children’s misbehavior. They believe, therefore, that THEY are the parties in need of correction. It’s as if they went to graduate school with me.
And so, the problem in question – whatever it might be – just keeps on getting worse. A disrespectful teen becomes more disrespectful. An anxious five-year-old who demands that her parents cater to her anxieties becomes more anxious and demanding. A ten-year-old who throws tantrums becomes a completely out-of-control thirteen-year-old.
All too often, these kids receive diagnoses of one sort or another – ADHD, oppositional-defiant disorder, bipolar disorder and so on – and wind up on medication. By the way, none of these diagnoses can be verified empirically and none of the medications used to “treat” them reliably outperform placebos.
Back to the aforementioned single mom: When she stopped absolving her son of responsibility for his disrespect, stopped thinking he was a victim with “anger issues,” stopped her unwitting enabling and responded to his abuse by confiscating all of his electronic gear and suspending all discretionary driving privileges until he was disrespect-free for two months…guess what? Right! After the shock wore off, his anger issues abruptly “resolved” and he became the model of a dutiful son.
Firm, loving authority is hard to beat.