Potty training is hard. Really hard. And talking with people who have potty trained children before is also hard. Really hard. So many people have stories of “oh, my little boy/girl took right to it and figured it out in a weekend.” When I first heard stories like this, they were the only stories I heard, which set some expectations in my mind that I now know are unrealistic. It turns out that most of the people who take the initiative to offer up their account unsolicited are those who did see some quick success. But it’s difficult to discern what they mean by ‘success.’ After all, for a child to be completely potty trained they need to be to the point of recognizing that they need to go potty, head to the potty themselves, do their business in there with no assistance (including handling pants and wiping), and never have an accident. They need to hold it through the night, and they need to be able to communicate to an adult their need to go potty consistently. Finally, they need to do this of their own choice – that is, free of external rewards.

So, for those stories of children who “just picked it right up,” I ask whether or not the above criteria were met right off the bat. My inclination is to presume the answer to this question is ‘no.’ I say this because the criteria I defined are hard to accomplish. Holding it requires muscle development and body awareness – two things that are developmental and not automatic. Distinguishing whether one has to pee or poop is not automatic when a child has lived for a couple years (at least) NOT having to think about that. The same goes for the development of muscles involved in holding it. Muscles that are not accustomed to an action need to be trained to perform that action. Manipulating one’s pants to get them out of the way is also tough when a child has never had to do that before. All of these tasks are not simply something that a child “picks up” in a weekend.

My conversations with people bear out my presumption as well. While there are many who proffer their experience of having a child (or being that child) who nailed it immediately, there are many more who don’t have that story but don’t share it until they are asked. Unfortunately, the best words of advice on potty training don’t come from people who willingly share it.

My expectations were unreasonable, and it showed. My son is going through potty training and I expected it to be quick because I didn’t think about it. Over the past few weeks, he has learned to hold it or tell us he needs to pee/poop, and the number of accidents went way down. But…it took several weeks to make this progress and he still doesn’t reliably push his pants down or poop in the potty (he prefers to poop on the ground outside if he can get away with it). However, he was making good progress until…we broke him.

Recently my son spent the majority of a weekend in pull-ups. While we still took him to the potty every 30-45 minutes initially, it didn’t take long for us to begin forgetting and those intervals became longer. He began peeing in his pull-up. By Monday, he was peeing in every pull-up even when the intervals returned to 30 minutes. So now we are back to square one – trying to avoid him peeing his pants by having a couple naked days. It’s disappointing.

Regression is bound to occur with any skill that is not constantly nurtured or practiced until it becomes second nature. For example, I used to know how to solve some pretty devious differential equations. However, after many years not doing so I’ve lost that skill and can now only handle the easy separable ones without guidance. It’s disappointing.

In this process of potty training, I’ve learned that I’m not nearly as patient as I thought I was. It seems like a toddler was designed to push my buttons, and this toddler of mine really knows which buttons to work. But I need to distinguish between those times when he pushes my buttons intentionally and those times when he does so unintentionally. Having pee accidents fall in that second category, I believe. It’s not misbehavior – it’s just a failure on my part to properly train him in a skill. I need to get a hold of my patience before I lose it, because it’s important for me to remember that he is just having a hard time with a skill that is still under construction. It’s not his fault.

I lose my patience pretty regularly now, it seems. Several times a day. I hate that part of me. But that’s a subject for another day.


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