Before I potty trained my daughter I went to the library and checked out every single potty training book on the shelf. While they were all full of helpful hints about when, where, and who and how to potty train, none of them really explained the why; that is, what exactly it is about each method that entices a child to sit upon the porcelain throne and let loose that first time. Sure, most of the advice was good, but there’s more to it then the “how to.” Behind every successful training tip there is over a century of study on child psychology that has led toward all our modern methods, and I wanted to find the connection between potty training and developmental psychology.
So I looked back a little further, to those endearing pipe-smoking balding and bespectacled old guys who poured their lives into the detailed observation of children to leave us a legacy of truth about just what it is that helps them learn. While they didn’t all have something to say specifically about potties, I have found that when you apply the science, you get much of the same information as the modern potty training books are advocating. While I can only scratch the surface of each theorist’s core ideas, I’m going to take a stab at what I would guess each of them would have to say about potty training, if they were required to boil it down for a blog post.
Len Vygotsky (1896 –1934) Soviet Belarusian Psychologist
Vygotsky’s theory was that children acquire knowledge in what he called the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD. This means the gap between what a child can do independently and what a child can do with your help. He stated that proper interaction and support with a child can bridge this gap, so that what a child can do with your assistance today, he will be able to do on his own tomorrow. If you are attempting to teach outside of this zone, learning isn’t going to happen as readily.
How does this relate to potty training? You need to be sure you are in the zone. Your child should have something that she is able to contribute to potty training before you begin, but it’s not necessary that she should be able to do everything. Maybe your child can walk to the potty, she can control her own bladder and bowels, and perhaps she can communicate that she needs to go. But it’s possible that your child can’t undo her own buttons, portion out toilet paper, or turn on the faucet. That’s okay. Your assistance will bridge the gap between what she can do on her own and what she can’t yet manage. You will work within the ZPD. If you think you need to wait until your child is old enough to operate the faucet unsupervised, you may be waiting too long. If you begin the process before she is able to contribute anything to the process, you are starting too early. One of the complaints I hear often from caregivers is that they had a parent tell them their child was potty trained, but they were disappointed to discover the child was unable to wipe himself. One woman even said to me, “if he can’t wipe, he ain’t trained!” Well not yet, perhaps, I thought. But he’s in the upper reaches of the ZPD and if you aren’t willing to help him, it will take an extended period of time to get him there.
Bronfenbrenner lists Vygotsky among his main influences. But he went on to explore more external factors, not just the relationship between caregiver and child. He developed the Ecological Systems Theory, which examines the relationships between a child and his direct environments– home, school, community, etc, the relationships between these environments. Each environment which influences a child has its own norms, roles, and rules, and how a child relates one to another affects the way he learns and develops. Inconsistencies between environments can account for why a child behaves one way at home and another way at school, for example.
When you are in the process of potty training, you need to be aware that the home setting may not be the only influence on your child’s learning. It is very important that the methods and systems of potty training that you choose remain consistent from one place to the next. If your child goes to daycare or is in a shared custody agreement, or even if you have two parents in the home, the method of training should be discussed between all guardians and caregivers. If you are at home telling your son that he is a big boy and doesn’t need diapers anymore, it’s not going to help him if his daycare teacher is slipping pull-ups on him as soon as you leave. If you’re telling your child that he needs to learn to go to the potty when he feels the urge, but your co-parent is making him sit for pre-determined amounts of time, the mixed message will confuse your child and prolong the process.
Ernst von Glasersfeld (1917-2010) American philosopher and Psychology Professor
Von Glasersfeld’s claim to fame was his theory of Radical Constructivism. It was a philosophical concept that stated that each person constructs his own unique frame of knowledge based on his own experiences. To verbally explain all your knowledge to another person will not yield the exact same body of knowledge in the person being taught, because his own experiences will shape his frame of mind on a given subject. More importantly, to passively teach someone will not be as effective as allowing him to form his own understanding by experiencing something for himself.
It seems like a stretch to bridge epistemology to toilet training, but bear with me. Let’s ignore the philosophical debate about whether or not all knowledge is subjective. We’ll imagine that it is for the purpose of gaining toilet training knowledge. It may help you to know that explaining the use of the potty to your child is not going to yield an identical frame of understanding. You may be saying, “You sit here and go pee. You take some toilet paper, wash your hands,” and so on. And in your mind you are expressing the simplicity of a series of logical tasks. In your child’s mind, however, something different is taking place. He is trying to frame this information within his existing body of knowledge. All his life, he has eliminated in a diaper. What you are telling him is that everything that has been easy and familiar is now irrelevant. The potty is strange; none of the other sitting surfaces have holes in them. Up until now removing one’s pants was frowned upon but now it’s expected. If your approach is to sit down and explain the potty and have him use it in one day, your child may be thinking, “This information does not corroborate everything else I know. So I reject it.” (But not in so many words of course.) The key to solving this, then, is to use a method that gradually introduces toileting concepts from an early age so that children have a point of reference before you begin. Let your child see his or her same-gendered parent using the toilet. Let him play with a toy toilet. Let him see you empty the contents of a diaper into a toilet and have him flush it. Do all these things long before the first day you ditch the diapers and he will be more apt to get it.
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) Developmental Psychologist, Genetic Epistemologist
Piaget was a master of observation. His clinical methods not only studied the cognitive abilities children gained during various stages, he also observed the mistakes they predictably made, and the significance of each. He reasoned that the errors were what gave us a clear picture of what is actually going on in children’s minds because they exposed the challenges they were working on and the methods which resolved them. For example, when children draw a chimney perpendicular to a roof instead of to the ground, it reveals that they are still working on relative angles and are not yet able to conceptualize the whole picture.
I believe parents should take this Piagtian approach when it comes to their children having accidents. Rather than getting angry, take a lesson from Piaget and ask yourself, “Why has this mistake occurred?” Perhaps your child has an accident every time you strap her into her high chair and every time you have a dispute. One could handle the mistake punitively, but what if the reason for the accident is that your child is feeling a loss of control? Punishing her will take even more control away from her and worsen the underlying problem. Instead, it needs to be resolved at the source. In this case, if you give her some freedom and more rights to make decisions the accidents may cease without you even having to mention them.
I’ll also mention a second area of Piagetian theory I find incredibly useful: the Schema. Piaget described a schema as a way of organizing information through mental representation and in some cases, repetitive operations, as a way of incorporating new information. More recent developments have looked at the nature of "motor schemas" and found that children’s choice of repeated actions give us insight into how they explore and learn. To put it very simply, children are more likely to learn something if they can do it in a way that’s more of the same of the thing they’re already doing. Your child may constantly throw his toys because he learned about trajectories from his toy ball and he wants to push the limits of that idea to see what else can fly, and how it flies. He’ll likely perform the experiment again and again. This is his dominant schema.
Now here’s the trick: When readying your child for future potty use, knowing his dominant schema will be of great help. Take the child who loves to toss things. If you give him a toy potty and a brown bean bag you call a “poopy,” and let him toss, he’ll learn to associate the poopy with the potty, and he’ll learn that getting it right inside is a good thing. If your child is obsessed with opening and closing things, he’ll love it if you emphasize how the potty lid goes up and down. If your child likes to wrap and enclose things, she’ll love to familiarize herself with toilet paper by wrapping up toys with it. If your child likes to transport and dump, instead of dumping the potty right into the toilet, push it to the toilet and make dump truck sound effects. If she likes to spin and rotate things, let her put some paper in the toilet and watch how it swirls when you flush. Instead of rejecting the idea of the potty, your child may instead take notice and feel that the potty has a familiar element.
Erik Erikson (1902 –1988) Danish-American Developmental Psychologist
While psychologists like von Glasersfeld and Piaget examined how knowledge is acquired, there is a separate paradigm that looks at how personalities and identities are formed. Erikson studied the formation of the ego in childhood and broke it down into specific stages, each with its own conflicts and triumphs which he theorized would lead to specific personality traits. I won’t go into detail here about each stage of what he named the Theory of Psychosocial Development, because what we’re mainly concerned with is Stage 2: the Autonomy Versus Shame and Doubt stage. Erikson believed that a child reached this stage between the approximate age of 1 and 2 years old. (Some sources broaden the range to 18 months to 3 years). The child is discovering her own identity and begins to fight for independence. As a parent, your role is to allow her to do things on her own to gain self confidence. This includes allowing her to make mistakes without fear of reprimand.
In contrast to many of the more philosophical people on this list, Erikson actually had some concrete things to say about how his theory related to potty training. He felt that it was a crucial example of something to teach your child during stage 2, because using the potty is strongly linked with a sense of pride and autonomy. Erikson stated the importance of not shaming or punishing your child for accidents during the potty training period, because accidents are part of the process and to put a child down will interrupt her resolve for autonomy. The strongest tool in your psychological toolbox is your child’s own drive to feel good about herself and to get it right. Erikson also proposed that if a child fails to complete this stage and achieve a positive identity, it can lead to complications. In the case of potty training, if a child reaches 3 or 4 years old with an unhealthy sense of self, she may develop a learned helplessness in which she refuses to use the potty.
Sigmund Freud (1856- 1939) Austrian founder of Psychoanalysis
I was hesitant to even include Freud on this list because the scope of his opinions on elimination was daunting. But everyone knows Freud and I’d be remiss to leave him off the list. So here goes. Freud had a lot to say on the topic of teaching toileting, and most of it was scary. His theory of psychosexual development suggested that elimination is linked to personality traits, much like Erikson. But he went to extreme lengths to warn that errors made in potty training will cause psychological disorders including, but not limited to, sexual disorders, Oedipus complexes, and identity crises. While Freud’s work is fundamental in the field of psychology, Freudian opinions about potty training may amount to alarmism in the light of modern knowledge on the topic. As a result there is a lingering fear among parents that they will damage their child by potty training incorrectly.
But what parents must understand is that Freud was responding to the practices of his day. In the 1940’s, people trained their toddlers by means of force, punishment, and in some cases crude practices like regular soap enemas. No wonder if they got so messed up! I’d love to say that all of Freud’s advice is irrelevant but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. He had some good points, the first of which is that trauma of any kind should never get mixed in with toilet training. If your family is undergoing a trauma or any major life event that may cause emotional upset for your child- divorce, a new sibling, moving, transitioning, and so on- this is not the best time to potty train. If you can avoid it, wait until a few weeks until life has become stabilized and then try potty training.
While I’m dubious about personality disorders like “anal retentiveness” emerging from poor potty training methods, one has to credit Freud for being one of the first people to prove in a clinical setting that positive reinforcement is more effective than punishment. He was onto something that now forms the fundamental core of potty training, which is gentle encouragement.
As long as you are using a potty training method which is positive, gentle, and noncoercive, you need not worry about damaging your child’s mental state or personality. If your first attempt at potty training is gentle but unsuccessful, you may start again when your child shows interest and you are no worse off than if you didn’t try.
B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) American psychologist and Behaviorist
Skinner was the man who invented the term “Operant Conditioning,” a method of psychology that seeks to change a person’s behavior by means of rewards and punishments. Because it is concerned with changing observable behaviour instead of looking at internal psychology, the work of behaviorists is often dismissed when it comes to child rearing. A common criticism is that changing the behavior doesn’t solve the child’s underlying problems or his ability to solve them. And that may be true in many cases. After all, we want children to be problem solvers and critical thinkers, not rats in a maze.
But a large portion of our behavior doesn’t involve thinking at all. Most of our daily routines only involve the formation of good habits. Trying to apply a laboured decision making process every time you get dressed, pick up toys and brush your teeth will become exhausting. Since using the toilet is one of these daily habits, I think it is a fantastic place to apply Skinner’s Operant Conditioning.
Your first aim, with any form of conditioning, is to identify your goal. This is easy. You want your child to urinate in the potty more often and on the floor or chair less often. The stimulus for each behavior will be the same: your child’s natural urge to eliminate and the feelings associated with needing to go, and the child’s response will be to release.
The second rule of Operant Conditioning is observation. This is not easily done if your child is wearing a diaper. So remove it and toss it away. If you like, you can replace the diaper with underwear, pants or use nothing at all. Observe your child closely at play. When he urinates on the floor, we know from other areas of psychology that an applied punishment is not effective or necessary. The natural consequence of urinating without a diaper is an uncomfortable feeling and a long interruption of play to get changed.
If, however, the child uses the potty, a reward should be applied. Praise and encouragement are appropriate, but a food reward can also be very effective if given immediately. You do not even need to talk about the reward or explain that it was received in exchange for using the potty. What happens in the brain is that the treat immediately and effectively spikes a dopamine response. This becomes connected with the part of the brain responsible for forming habits. Eventually, deep in your child’s subconscious, there is a part of the brain making decisions without him even knowing.
Let’s summarize the tips we can gather from developmental psychology.
1. Potty train when your child is already able to contribute some steps to the process, but there is no need to wait until she can complete all the steps on her own.
2. Keep the potty training method as consistent as possible from one caregiver to another.
3. Familiarize your child with different aspects of the potty long before you begin training.
4. When your child has accidents, look for patterns and try to correct any underlying cause.
5. Use your child’s current interests and fixations in order to help him assimilate potty training into what he already knows.
6. Appeal to your child’s self esteem. Never shame or punish for accidents.
7. Don’t attempt to start potty training during potentially upsetting life events. Be careful not to traumatize your child by using force or coercive tactics.
8. Reward your child with praise and special treats for using the potty. Remember that accidents teach natural consequences and they are useful for teaching as well.
As you can see, years and years of clinical observation, applied scientific method, and volumes of complicated esoteric information can be whittled down to simple applications, most of which you probably already know. So if you follow the above eight recommendations and your friends ask how you potty trained, you can proudly tell them you just applied over a century of developmental psychology.