Potty Training for Dummies

As I’ve been making an attempt to cultivate gratitude in my life, I thought I would write about another thing I am hugely grateful for, and that is the fact that Maya is potty trained. I have been told that girls accomplish this most magnificent of feats earlier than boys, but whatever the reason Maya accepted this sacred teaching, I am grateful. When I tell people how easy it was to potty train Maya, Dave informs me that I have romanticized it because I wasn’t the one stuck home with her for weeks sitting on the floor of the bathroom. He may be right, but here is my version anyway.

The motivation to potty train Maya was partly (okay mostly) financial. We had just moved to the most expensive city in North America. Maya had just turned two and I had gargantuan student loan payments. My piddly little salary was supposed to provide for our entire family for the next year and four months. Diapers did not fit in the budget.

I had seen potty training books at my brother and sister-in-law’s as we made our way out west, and realized that I had not a clue on how potty training actually happened. Judging by the number of books available on the topic, it seemed complicated. We had bought a potty months ago which we left it in the bathroom, and we had a book called “The Potty Book for Girls”, given to us by Dave’s cousin, but that was it. Luckily, Maya loved the book and we read it over and over. It taught her important lessons, such as the fact that potties don’t go on your feet; instead, they are for sitting on, which to her, I could tell, seemed like a lot less fun.  I had to ad-lib at this point and point out that while sitting, “You can go pee pee on the potty! You can go poo poo on the potty!” which was said with greatly exaggerated excitement. The one thing I’ve noticed about parenting, is that if there ever was a small, maybe secret part of you that regretted not being a cheerleader in school, that part gets a second chance. Parents of babies and toddlers cheer wildly at the most inane accomplishments.

It was also about this time that I realized that Maya’s toys often had more influence than Dave and I did, as her parents, and that we could exploit this fact. Dave often uses Maya’s beloved Pinky Bear to encourage her to eat (he is constantly worried she will actually starve herself to death). I have used Pinky Bear to help me get her to floss her teeth, a task which used to involve chasing after her multiple times.  “Maya why don’t you show Pinky Bear how great you are at flossing your teeth? He’s never done it before you know.” Pinky Bear will look at her and agree. “Maya can you show me how you floss your teeth?” She will jump right up on the bed and be so proud to show Pinky Bear what a good flosser she is. “Pinky Bear look! Look Pinky Bear! I’m flossing my teeth!”

But Pinky Bear, as beloved as he was, would need help. Luckily, Maya also loved Elmo, who unlike Pinky Bear, had his face plastered on everything. So I bought an Elmo seat to go on the toilet, and an Elmo potty book.  The Elmo book talked about underwear and how great they are. That was my in. I told Maya how cool panties are and promised her that we would go shopping together for new panties and she could pick them out in all different colours. Wearing panties is the greatest thing in the entire world, and when she was a big girl, she would get to wear them too, just like mommy.

Up until that point we hadn’t really pressured Maya to use the potty. We had put her on the potty to try it out and sometimes she had actually peed. So of course we made a huge deal out of it, and phoned all of the grandparents and aunts and uncles to tell them the big news, really loudly and with great fanfare. “Guess what Maya did Grandma? Maya went pee pee in the potty! Isn’t that great?? We’re so proud of her!”

After months of introducing the concepts, but without any pressure, Dave and I decided to take the plunge. She had shown most of the signs I had read about in the potty training I had flipped through (i.e. hiding behind the curtains when she went poo) so, we figured, let’s give it a shot. Maya and I went on our first mommy/daughter shopping trip and bought about 20 pairs of panties in all different colours. The whole time we talked about what a big, big girl she was and how exciting it was that she was going to get to wear panties.  

I think what really worked, however, was that every time we talked about panties, and how awesome they were, I would tell her, “But when you’re a big girl and wear panties you can’t pee pee or poo poo in your panties.” “I can’t go pee pee in panties?” “No. You can’t. When you’re a big girl and you wear panties you have to use the potty.” The result of those conversations, was this: Maya would ask us, “Mommy am I wearing panties or a diaper?” “You’re wearing panties Maya, you have to use the potty.” And off she would go. But if I told her she was wearing a diaper, she knew that meant she didn’t have to use the potty, she could, as she always had done, go in her diaper.

This tactic, I realized, fit with a “no diaper” philosophy I had heard of, where right from the beginning parents learn to watch for their child’s cues and then sit with them on the toilet, thereby rarely, if ever, having to change a poopy diaper. The benefit was that the child would then learn how to use a toilet from the start and never have to unlearn (and you unteach) two or three years of what has become, for most children, an absolute truth – that they can take a crap in their pants and someone else will clean their little bottoms while they lay back and relax.

We, of course, did not subscribe to that philosophy at birth, having neither the time nor the patience. But like that philosophy, our own muddled way involved learning, but no unlearning. Maya didn’t have to transition from “When I wear diapers it is my absolute privilege and right to, at any time I desire, release my bowels in my pants” to the knowledge that this cherished liberty has been unjustly and arbitrarily curtailed. When we put Maya in panties, the diaper truth never changed. She knew if she was wearing diapers, nothing changed, if she pooed her pants all would continue to be well in the world. Since she was wearing panties all the time now, if she ignored the new lesson and went while wearing panties, it was to her peril.

She learned rather quickly that it is both an uncomfortable and unwelcome experience. My Dad and his family came for a visit within weeks of this experiment.  We decided to walk to a neighbourhood cafe to have brunch. During our 1.5 hour long meal I took Maya to the potty twice. She went neither time. Five minutes after leaving the restaurant, however, she realized she had to pee. I tried to get her pants off so that she could at least pee on someone’s lawn, but no such luck. It got all over her and her pants were soaked.

As I took out a new change of clothes (thank God Dave and I had taken our good parenting pills that day and there actually were fresh clothes in our bag, unlike that one diarrhea accident) Maya looked up at me with shock. She said “I don’t like that Mommy!” And that was that. She never peed in her panties again. A few weeks later she didn’t even need a diaper at night.

I am, in actual truth, really proud of her and of us. Potty training, according to Freud, is one of life’s most important developmental achievements. If, as a parent, you screw this up you are sentencing your child to a lifetime of anal retentiveness, so the theory goes. The fact that we got through it relatively unscathed taught me an important lesson: Dave and I make a good team. And for that, I am very grateful.

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