Potty Learning – How and Why to Let Children Lead the Way


While every child will eventually and inevitably learn to use the potty, the process can be stressful, frustrating, and often counterproductive for both the child and caregiver. Janet knows it doesn’t have to be this way. She offers her perspective on the process and a potty learning method that recognizes a child’s natural motivation to achieve this milestone (they can do this), and how parents can support the effort without pressure, bribes, or deal-making. The result is a child whose self-confidence grows in all areas because he has been allowed to own this accomplishment.

Transcript of “Potty Learning – How and Why to Let Children Lead the Way”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be talking about potty learning and I want to preface the perspective I share as… a perspective. Obviously not the only way, or maybe even for some people the best way, to go about helping our children learn to use the potty. There are a lot of different methods parents choose and they all seem to result, eventually at least, in people who are toilet trained, because adults that we know are mostly toilet trained. Please know, this is just a singular perspective that I know for sure works and I want to share all about it today.

As you may have gathered from the title of this episode, the approach I believe in is to allow our children to lead, direct and navigate this process with our support. First I want to explain why I believe this is the best way…

Because they can. Children are able to do this. They can own this accomplishment. And that may seem like an unimportant aspect to some people. But with the approach that I teach, with Magda Gerber‘s approach, we value tremendously the self-motivation and the inner directedness of our children from birth. And that means, as much as possible, we want to nurture that. We want to allow them to do the things that they’re able to do right from the beginning. We want to try to hold space for that, encourage that so children can continue to believe in themselves and know that they are capable, that they can accomplish. Not just the things that we want them to but the things that they innately want to do. Learning to go on the potty is one of them. Because they know that other people do this and they see that we do this, their parents and adult caregivers. They will naturally want to achieve this on their own.

Accomplishments build on themselves. When we allow our baby to be the one to decide to reach for and eventually grasp a toy rather than putting it into their hands one day, maybe they don’t do it in the manner that we would wish or maybe they don’t pick up the toy that we think they should pick up, they pick up another one, but eventually, they do this. And every one of those experiences builds self-confidence, encourages them to trust their innate competence. And encourages us to as well because we see that our children can do things, because we’ve held space for that and not done everything for them ourselves. We will see again and again: oh wow, my child can do that too.

Another reason I believe in child-led is that it helps us to avoid a complication that often happens. Well, I hear about it a lot because the parents reaching out to me, a lot of them have experienced this issue where they try to help their child make potty training happen and their child resisted. Sometimes parents don’t even realize that their agenda is being felt by their child. Maybe they aren’t talking about it a lot but the child is sensing that they want them to potty train. Or sometimes they’ve overtly tried to make potty training happen and the child resists. And I know this because parents will say to me sometimes, “Well, I did let my child lead mostly but they refuse to even go on the potty.” When somebody uses the word “refuse,” it connotes that a child has been asked to do something or feels the parent wants them to do something, otherwise they couldn’t refuse.

What happens is that children, as they’re becoming toddlers, and some get this even earlier in the infant months, they’re beginning to individuate as separate people from us. That is part of their healthy development as people: to want to be more independent, want to do it themselves, want to see where their power is. And so when we’re trying to help a child potty train in those toddler years, which is when it’s commonly done, then our child has this natural urge to resist us. That’s why toddlers are famous for saying, “No,” acting in ways that we don’t want them to, not doing what we ask them to do, not quote, “listening,” making their own decisions about whatever the rules are if they’re going to follow them or not. It’s healthy for them to be that way.

And when we’re trying to potty train, we’re playing right into that without meaning to, that need for a child to resist. Now they’re resisting us not because they don’t actually want to potty learn but for the sake of resisting us.

As a toddler, I want to be my own person. If you tell me or I sense you want me to do something, I want to do the opposite. It’s the healthy developmental impulse in me. Toilet training can bring that on in a way that frustrates us as parents. But if we allow a child to completely own and lead this process, then they’re not going to resist us there. They’re going to resist us in other ways but not in this one. That won’t get in the way. There won’t be emotional power struggle issues that impede the process.

The third reason why I believe in child-led potty learning is that in my experience, it’s much easier, and I’m all for easy. I’m all for effortless. We have too many things to do as parents as it is. The toddler years are exhausting, emotionally exhausting, physically exhausting for us. It’s all happening. There’s a lot going on. And as I said to a parent I was consulting with, if we can “take the poop off of our plate,” that’s one less thing that we have to deal with, how our child is potty learning.

But what it does require of us is a different kind of challenge. We’re not challenged to try to figure out how to get our child to do this and get our child to do that and how to make it happen but we’re challenged in an emotional way to let go and trust.

I talk about this a lot on a lot of different topics around children because it’s not easy. I talk about it a lot because it’s difficult. I know it’s difficult. It feels like we’re letting go. How can we really trust this person to do something when they’re that little? And what if they don’t? And it’s challenging. But that is the challenge that I recommend around toilet learning, to not just say to ourselves that we’re not going to push it but to really believe in our child. They will do it, just the way they grasp that toy that they chose to grasp when they were ready to, just as they walked, just as they started talking, they can do this.

Those are the three reasons: 1) because they can and it’s so healthy for them to achieve autonomously. Two, 2) because we don’t want to lay into toddler resistance if we can help it. And three, 3) because it’s less work for us, less confusing for us to try to figure it out.

Now I want to move on to how. How do we do this? Because trusting our children and them being able to accomplish something does not happen in a vacuum. And that is very true with toilet learning.

What our job is, is to nurture the environment that encourages children to not only achieve for themselves but to feel comfortable about their bodily functions and understand them. The best most organic way to do that is the way that we diaper change with a baby. Do we slow down instead of distracting them? Do we invite them to pay attention to what’s happening with their body parts, using the real names for body parts, being careful not to teach children that there’s something gross or awful or smelly or disgusting about their bodily functions? Even if we think that’s true, imagine how that feels to a child when now they’re expected to go in the potty. They can have shame around their feces and their urine. They can feel fear around letting this go, letting this out because people have reacted to it in a way that was negative.

I would take care in the words that you choose in your attitude. In a way, we have to be kind of professional about this aspect of caring for a child, the way a nurse caring for a very elderly incontinent adult would treat that. They wouldn’t say, “Oh, this is so gross and smelly.” It’s really important with children if we want them to have a healthy relationship with their body and their bodily functions. We don’t want shame and fear to get in the way. Normalizing. And that’s something that we cultivate beginning with our newborn. We narrate the diaper change so that our child knows what’s happening, understands the self-care aspects, doesn’t feel self-conscious or shame or fear.

And then communication is a big part of this process all the way through. Again, starting with your baby and then also noticing signs of readiness, which doesn’t mean that we jump on it and say, “Okay, now I’m going to train you. You’re ready.” (It doesn’t mean that with this perspective, anyway. It’s for our own information.)

Magda Gerber used to say, “There are three ways that children need to be ready:” 1) physically. They need to be able to hold in their bodily functions until they can get to a potty. That has to happen. Then, 2) cognitively. They understand what the potty is and what to do. And then, 3) emotionally. And that’s the one, again, where it can backfire with parents if the child is emotionally in that period of resistance and the parent is nudging or pushing them in a direction.

Also emotionally, it can be tougher if there have been emotions created around these experiences of diaper changes and things like that. That one gets in the way most often.

But just understanding that those all have to be in place and that we can’t rush developments and that this, like many developments, is not a linear process. For many children, there will be times they want to go in the potty and then maybe there are stressors or challenges in their life, feelings that they hold back again and they need to be in diapers again for a while — they’ve moved houses or there’s a new baby or something. It’s common for children to have this not be a direct linear process. If we can understand that as parents then we’ll worry less and our expectations will be in line with what’s actually going on.

I would at some point with your child, when they’re probably around one and a half or at least on their feet walking, I would get a small potty and have it in your bathroom. I wouldn’t have it out in the playroom and have it be a toy that children do whatever they want with like the other toys that we in their play area. It has a specific purpose. It’s in the bathroom. It’s just there. We don’t bring focus to it. We don’t put pressure around it, that here’s this thing and “now we want you to do this.” We don’t have an agenda. It’s just there so that when our child wants to experiment, they can.

And then I would say to my child at some point, especially if they’re starting to show signs that they’re telling me ahead of time that they are moving their bowels or have to urinate, then I would say, “It looks like you’re telling me you have to pee,” or, “It looks like you have to pee, the potty’s there. If you ever want to try, I’ll take you there.” Or we might even say, “Do you want to try the potty?” But this has to be the most open-ended, I totally trust you and I really don’t care, subtext. Because again, there are children that are very, very sensitive to our tone, our agendas and we don’t want that to get in the way. But I would make it clear at some point that you’re available to help anytime your child wants to try. And I would do that probably even before two years old, as soon as I got the potty, maybe I would say, “If you ever want to use the potty and you want help, let me know.” And then I would drop it, not just with my child but with myself.

And what will happen is our child will want to try it one time, and maybe run off on their own and do it or we’re there, but there’ll be a time that they do it, that they pee in the potty. I know some advisors recommend doing a big hoopla around that and a big celebration. I wouldn’t. Because again, that can read to a child, I’m so happy. This is about me. I’m relieved, I’m excited!  And it can be distracting for a child. It can take them into resistance mode, maybe, and also it kind of takes ownership of the experience from them and becomes more about us and how excited we are. We can be excited, but I wouldn’t have a big to-do. I would say something more like, “Wow, you went on the potty this time. How did that feel?” Or, “That’s pretty cool.” Whatever words you would use but just a mellow, authentic, connected response. More interested in what our child’s thinking than how excited we are.

Then I wouldn’t, again, see that this is now done and my child’s going to do this every time. I would know that might just be an anomaly for now and we’ll see. Keep letting it go. Not bringing it up every day, not bringing it up even every week. At the most offering it when your child seems to be needing to go. Then you could say, “Oh, do you want to go in the potty?” Or, “If you ever want me to help you with your diaper,” or if your child is in Pull-Up at this point maybe, “Let me know and I will give you a hand.” But I would use that very sparingly.

Then there’s a point when your child is doing this regularly. That’s the point where I would say, “It seems like you’re going on the potty now. Do you want to wear underwear instead of diapers?” And they would probably say yes to that.

What can happen sometimes with the parents that I hear from is that they bring up the idea of underwear, and then our child senses our excitement about that so they want to wear the underwear, but they’re actually not ready to wear the underwear. And the parent feels understandably like: oh gosh, I don’t want to discourage this underwear thing. But at the same time, they’re having accidents all over the house. But I don’t want to say no to underwear if my child’s asking for it.

That right there is where a boundary needs to be, in my opinion. Where we say, not because it’s a punishment and you’ve stepped back and now you have to go back into diapers, but “it’s my job as your parent to help you stay comfortable, so we’re going to keep the diapers on you so you don’t have to worry. I don’t want you to have to worry about going on the potty. When you’re ready, I know you’ll do it. I believe in you.” A very honest caring boundary.

And again, if we stay in letting go mode, then we won’t find ourselves in these little traps where now we’re excited. It can also happen that our child says, “I want to sit on the potty.” And we say, “Okay.” And now they’re sitting there and sitting there and sitting there and want us to read them books or do all these things. And we’re feeling like: oh my gosh, I don’t want to discourage this so I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to hang out with my child for half an hour in the bathroom when they want me to or before bed or whatever it is.

The reason we get stuck there is that we’re so afraid that this is a delicate process, which it really isn’t. It’s only delicate in the emotional areas. But when our child wants to do this, they’ll do it. No reasonable boundary that we have will get in the way of the process.

So we don’t have to worry that if I do something reasonable, like say, “Okay, let’s go to the potty for a few minutes and let’s see.” And then we say, “You know what? I think you can try again another time, just let me know.”

No pressure, but being reasonable, not feeling hamstrung that we’ve got to make this happen our child’s way however they want it to. That’s where the boundaries have to come in. Because if we look at why we’re getting stuck there, it’s because we’re afraid, or that we really want this to happen so badly that we’re willing to do anything. And our child will feel those exact things coming from us and it won’t be helpful.

Another thing that can get in the way sometimes is if we generally struggle with boundaries. I definitely did in the beginning with my daughter but some people kind of set me straight early on, so I was getting it. And one of those people was Magda. So I can understand how it happens, especially with the approach I teach that is “follow the child, let the child lead.”

And the parent lets the child lead everything and doesn’t understand that the child leading is in a context of boundaries, predictable, solid boundaries that the parent has. If those boundaries aren’t in place, that actually holds them back in developments like potty training. It’s harder if they feel like they don’t have that security of those rules and boundaries around them. Sometimes that’s why delays are caused.

Other times I would check out physical reasons. Dr. Steven Hodges was on my podcast and he talks all about some surprising physical things that can be going on with a child who’s very delayed toilet learning or having accidents. I would check that out (HERE).

Let’s cover some of the other issues that come up…  School, I want my child to go to this preschool and they have to be potty trained. What do I do? I’ve got to make it happen.

Well, early childhood educators who understand child development, which they all should, know that there isn’t a hard line between children who can and can’t go on the potty. It’s a process. Again, not a linear process either. I have found that most schools are a little more open than they may present themselves to be. But if this school or care situation absolutely isn’t and you really need your child to go there, I would consider a couple of things.

One, I would consider if you could do fewer hours. Because oftentimes even a child’s who is potty trained will hold. Especially if they didn’t come to potty training of their own volition completely, they will hold while they’re at school. While that may be okay for a few hours, we don’t want that to be for the full day ideally.

If you’re really concerned and you need to make a deadline in terms of your child being potty trained, I would still, instead of trying to make it happen or coax it to happen or use rewards and bribes and all of that stuff, pitting yourself against your child —  we accidentally do that when we use those kind of tactics. It’s a kind way of doing it but we’re still saying: Okay, I want you to do something for me so I’m going to do something for you. And it becomes about us. But what we can do is still work with our child on the situation by being very honest and open. And then we still have to let go and trust.

I’ve seen this happen with so many families who were, first of all, projecting six months ahead and that interfered with them being able to trust. And then because of that, they got in the way of something that probably could have happened with trust: their child doing this of their own volition. I would partner with my child on this and say:

“There’s this playschool that we want you to go to.” And maybe our child gets to go see it. “We think you’d have so much fun, that you’d really love it. The only thing about it is the children there, they go on the potty. So we would love to try to help you go on the potty so that you can go there. Please let us know if there’s anything we can do that would help make it easier for you.”

At that point, I would still let go. I know it’s going to be very, very scary to let go but that’s the best chance that we have, I believe, of getting what we want and still allowing our child to reap the benefits.

Now let’s say that we have been leading toilet training… I hear from a lot of parents who are having difficulties and it’s not working and their child seems to be resisting. What can they do to turn this around? And really it’s simple. Let go, trust your child, let them know honestly that you realize that you’ve been trying to get them going with potty training but you realize that they are totally capable of doing this. You know they will when they’re ready. “Just please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” And that’s it. But really letting go, not just saying the words, really trusting.

I think I could do a whole series on this topic because there’s a lot to say but I’ll just leave it there for today. Again, this isn’t the only way. It’s the way that I believe in 100%. Thank you so much for listening.

For more, please check out the posts and all the podcasts on my website. They’re all categorized by topic and you should be able to find whatever you’re looking for. There are many of them there.

I have a piece called Three Reasons Kids Don’t Need Potty Training, and that will fill in some things that I talked about today.

Also, if you’re not aware of my books, please check them out. They’re bestsellers on Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  They’re available on audio at audible.com and you can get one for free by using a link in the liner notes of this podcast. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Google Play, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com. And if you find this podcast helpful, you can help it to continue by giving it a positive review on iTunes and by supporting my sponsors.

Thank you again. We can do this.

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