Monday, January 17th, 2022
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Copyright 2022, John K. Rosemond

The Keys to Relatively Quick, Painless Toilet Training

Q: I recently tried toilet training my 32-month-old, but after a few days of no success, I decided to stop. A friend tells me to hang in there, but my pediatrician says my son isn’t ready. She suggests I try again in a few months. Your thoughts?

A: What does it mean that a two-and-one-half year old child “isn’t ready” to learn to use the toilet properly? In the absence of serious developmental delays, a child is capable of learning to do this between 18 and 24 months. I prefer the term “capable” to “ready” because the latter implies that toilet training is fraught with psychological pitfalls, which is simply not so. To put this in perspective, consider that a 3-month-old puppy can be house-trained in three days!

You obviously think that if something you do doesn’t bring results in a few days, then you must not be doing the right thing. The fact is, even if you approach the task properly, it can take up to six weeks to toilet train a toddler, and boys are disproportionately represented at the upper end of the scale.

Like most of today’s parents, you bought into the “readiness” myth and have waited past the point where this would have been relatively easy. You might also have made the mistake of micromanaging. Today’s parents are very anxious about toilet training, and their anxiety drives a lot of hovering and over-directing. Toddlers are not inclined to follow instructions of any sort when someone is hovering over them. As Grandma used to say, “A watched pot never boils.”

The keys to relatively quick, painless toilet training are:

  1. Set the stage properly. Put the potty out in the open, where the child spends most of his time during the day. Yes, even if that means the living room.
  2. Make it simple for the child. Either let the child walk around the house naked from the waist down or wearing only thin cotton underwear. Don’t use pull-ups! They only delay a child’s ability to sense when he has to use the toilet. You are helping your child learn something new, so get rid of the old. Also, by letting your child walk around naked or wearing only the thinnest of underwear (note: no training pants either!), when he has an accident, he will know it and so will you. Stains? Big deal. When your child is trained, call the carpet cleaner.
  3. Keep your distance. Remember that this is a trial-and-error process. If you hover, trying to prevent errors, you are likely to provoke resistance.
  4. Respond properly to mistakes. When a mistake occurs, be encouraging and supportive. Take your child over to the potty and remind him of what he’s supposed to do. Needless to say, yelling and other outbursts of frustration are counterproductive.

Now, go ahead and get started with what you should have started at least six months ago. And this time, stick with it.



When To Use Time-outs

I was once an orthodox believer in the power of time-out—the practice of having a child sit in a somewhat isolated chair for five minutes or so immediately after said child has misbehaved. I promoted time-out in this column, my books, and my public presentations. Used consistently, I said, it should take care of just about any discipline problem. I especially liked the fact that time-out was painless yet still unpleasant enough to a young child to cause him restraint the next time he was inclined to step out of line.

I would recommend time-out to parents who were dealing with an errant child and almost invariably receive, a week or two later, a glowing report. If I dare claim—and I’m by no means proud of it—I probably did more to popularize time-out than anyone in the known universe, even the earth. From sea to shining sea I carried the good news: Armed with but a chair, a timer, and a short list of misbehavior, anyone could have a well-behaved child! Hoo-hah!

Then I began hearing (or finally started paying attention to) disturbing reports of children who responded well to time out for a few weeks and began backsliding. Not to be undone, I flippantly attributed these reports to parents who’d gotten lazy and inconsistent. Then parents began telling me of children who would sit in time-out for the requisite length of time, get up, and immediately misbehave. Then I heard of children who would cooperate with the procedure for a few days to a few weeks and then suddenly begin refusing to cooperate and stood their ground and things in the family grew worse than ever before. These were followed by stories of children who would sit in time-out and scream bloody murder, repeatedly slam their time-out chairs into walls, slide their chairs from room to room, or some equally inventive combination thereof.

Finally, it came to me that it was impossible for parents to apply time-out consistently, and that children intuited this rather quickly. It could not be used if a child misbehaved just when his or her parent needed to exit the house quickly to make an appointment, or the family was in the car or a public place or someone else’s home. So, guess when these kids began doling out most of their misbehaviors?

I also realized—I suppose I qualify as a slow learner—that to many a pre-delinquent child (which they all are) time-out was nothing more than a nuisance. It was the epitome of attempting to thwart off a charging elephant with a flyswatter.

The fact is, time out works for a short period of time with almost all misbehaving children. Its novelty upends them, for a while, but wears off quickly. In the long run, it is nothing more than a minor inconvenience, especially for a child who is highly defiant.

I concluded: Time-out works with children who are already reasonably well behaved. But then, so does just about anything, including a firm verbal reprimand. As regards chronically ill-behaved children, however, time-out is insufficiently persuasive.

That’s my final answer and I’m sticking to it.



Is This Battle Worth It?

Q: I have six-month- and thirty-two-month-old boys. The older one—well-mannered, easy going, very affectionate—attends a preschool program three mornings a week. This is his second year there. Last year, he cried every time I walked him in but stopped within minutes. This year, I have to use the carpool line. When a teacher tries to get him out of the car, he screams like he’s being tortured and physically fights her. I’m now getting reports that he has become defiant in class. Yesterday, he began throwing things when his teacher reprimanded him for something. She thinks he’s insecure because of the second child, but he acts anything but insecure at home. She’s talked about using a special reward system for him, which I think is a bad idea. Do you have any suggestions?

A: I agree that this behavior has nothing to do with the arrival of a younger sibling. As are all psychological explanations for human behavior, this one amounts to an unprovable proposition. I can posit that your older son is trying to work through issues having to do with having been toilet-trained before he was emotionally ready. What does that mean? How can it be verified? As the present example exemplifies, when a problem is explained in psychological terms, it almost always becomes unsolvable, only “treatable.” How do you disappear the younger child or wipe the toilet training slate clean and start over?

First, you don’t need to understand the supposed “cause” of a behavior problem in order to correct it, so let’s do our best to think forwardly instead of backwardly. Your son has been having these emotional spikes on school days for over a year now. In other words, the problem started before his brother was born and has simply escalated.

Second, I agree that a special reward system is a bad idea. When a child behaves badly, punishment is the answer. Unfortunately, preschools cannot receive certain accreditations if they punish their young charges for antisocial behavior. Instead, they do ineffectual but psychologically correct things, as in trying to reason or reward good behavior when bad behavior is the issue. (This, I’m convinced, is one reason why researchers have found that children in day care are more impulsive, aggressive, and disobedient on average than children who are cared for at home.)

Having said all that, the fact that this program is optional overrides all other considerations. When a two-year-old gets into a snit of this sort over attending an optional program and the resistant behavior is spiraling downward and has been for months (much less over a year), I recommend simply taking him out. It’s not worth the battle, and besides, this is a battle you may not be able to win. Let several weeks go by and then find another program or a smaller, cooperative play group. A change of venue may make all the difference.



Time Out for Disrespectful 6-Year-old

Q: Whenever—and I most definitely mean every single time—I ask my six-year-old daughter to do something, she becomes very disrespectful. She stomps her foot, yells at me that I make her do “everything,” mutters disrespectful remarks under her breath (which I usually hear), and so on. If I just allow her to vent, she gets over it fairly quickly and does what I’ve told her to do. She doesn’t act this way toward my husband, and he thinks I should punish her for the disrespect. What do you think?

A: On one hand, you should be grateful that in the final analysis your daughter obeys. On the other, you don’t want to give her the impression that “venting” at instructions from adult authority figures is okay. The general rule of thumb: bad behavior, ignored, tends to worsen. There’s a chance, in other words, that if you tolerate your daughter’s displays of pique and simply let them run their course they will eventually escalate into belligerent defiance. That cascade may never happen, but as, I think, Albert Einstein first articulated in his theory of relativity, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

A technique I call “Three Strikes, You’re Out!” is an effective approach to impulsive impertinence of the sort you describe. The technique is easy for a six-year-old to understand and simple to enforce.

On any given day, you call a “strike” every time you give your daughter an instruction and she begins to vent her feeling of being downtrodden and deserving of much sympathy. When you call a strike, she spends a certain amount of time in a chair in a relatively isolated area of the house. Use a timer to mark the time so that you don’t have to deal with the second most annoying question in the universe: “Can I come out now?” (The most annoying being “Are we there yet?”)

The first vent of the day results in fifteen minutes in the “venting chair.” (You can call it anything you want, even the “bananarama chair.”) The second vent of the day earns thirty minutes in the chair, and the third results in confinement to her room for the remainder of the day along with early bedtime. Assuming you’re consistent in calling strikes when they are due, two weeks is all it should take to convince the Princess of Petulance to control her little outbursts.

Do not be deceived, however. You can bring this under control in a week or two, but you must stand ready to enforce for the next six months, at least. With a child this age, a behavioral snowball that only took a week or two to roll downhill usually takes several months to put back in cold storage.



Cleaning up the Messes Therapists Enable

I can count on one hand—okay, maybe two—the number of parents who’ve told me that letting a child speak with a therapist has produced a positive outcome. One might dismiss a few such reports, but not hundreds of them, most of which reflect a similar theme: to wit, a tendency on the part of said therapists to take the “side” of the child in a parent-child conflict.

As one set of parents told me, “Claiming confidentiality, our daughter’s therapist wouldn’t talk with us without her in the room and obviously believed everything she was saying about us, almost all of which was either fantasy or downright lies.”

Strange. Do these therapists not know that the operational definition of “child” is “one who has great difficulty accepting full responsibility for the choices they make”? In addition, children are incapable, for the most part, of correctly interpreting and accurately describing adult behavior. To top it off, children are soap opera factories; therefore, anything a child says about adults, especially his or her parents, is to be given due skepticism. The conclusion I have drawn is that the field of child therapy is populated to significant extent by people with a need to be liked by children. Very odd. Wanting to be liked by children, that is. There is nothing amiss with BEING liked by children but WANTING and TRYING to be liked is another matter entirely.

The latest example comes from parents who live somewhere in the Lower Forty-Eight who consulted with a family therapist because of conflicts with their fifteen-year-old daughter, including conflict over the state of—as she put it—“her” room, which many a homeless person would refuse to live in. Said room was not just a thorough mess but smelled bad from food that was slowly rotting and clothes that begged for washing.

After talking privately with the girl, the therapist informed her parents that their expectations were “unfair.” The girl should be allowed to wallow in whatever state of clutter and filth she chooses. The problem, said the therapist, was not the daughter’s irresponsibility and lack of respect for the people who pay for her life, it was the parents’ inability to establish “appropriate boundaries” between themselves and their daughter, a conclusion reached after less than one hour of conversation with the girl. Even if that were true (which is impossible to establish), it would not justify this otherwise intelligent girl’s behavior in the home.

This is far from the first time I’ve heard such a tale. This seems to be a “therapeutic” narrative. Allow me, therefore, to stand up for parents who are the victims of “It’s MY room and I can do with it what I please!” nonsense.

A message to the daughter in question and similarly mistaken teenagers everywhere: No, dearie, it’s not YOUR room. It is paid for on a continuing basis by your parents, the people who have ensured that you have never known true deprivation. It would be highly therapeutic for you to come to grips with the fact that you qualify as ungrateful and any sense of entitlement you cling to is a self-destructive delusion. In the Real World, you are not entitled; you are obligated.

I told the parents to take the door off the daughter’s room and require two months of a clean and odor-free room before re-installing it. Not so miraculous was their report that as their daughter began cooperating with their draconian standards, she slowly became equally pleasant to live with, proving, once again, that the unmitigated real world is the best of all therapies.


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