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Toilet Training - Re-Thinking Your Potty Training Approach with Reluctant Two- and Three-Year-Olds

Updated on February 22, 2016
Lisa HW profile image

"Lisa" , a "social sciences enthusiast" and Mom of three grown kids, writes from personal experience/exposure and/or past research

The Only Thing That Worked with My Three Children

When my children were between about fifteen months and two years old, each of them seemed extremely delighted to try to use the little potty chair. With big smiles they'd proudly settle onto the seat, only to do nothing (zero, nothing, not a drip, zip). There's I'd sit, on the edge of the bathtub, with the circulation to my tailbone and legs gone, really, really, bored.

Not wanting to say or do the wrong thing, I'd cheerfully ask if a child was "finished yet". Of course, nobody was ever finished, because nobody ever did anything. When I would suggest leaving the bathroom and trying again later, each one would scream and say they wanted to stay there. I don't really recall how it is I ever got any of them to leave, but - twenty some years later - and not still sitting on the edge of that cream-colored bathtub.

With each child, after enough of these horrendously boring (and ultimately unpleasant) attempts at getting them to use the potty, I eventually got to the point where I left the potty there but was just as pleased that they just go-the-heck in their diaper and spare my hip and tail bones the unending discomfort of the bathtub's edge. (Maybe those clever little creatures had used reverse psychology on me?)

The way it went was that at some point late in their second year, we'd have one particularly awful bathroom-sitting episode, and I'd end by saying, "Well, if you ever want to use the potty, it's there for you." (I'd secretly think, "Dear God, don't let them ever ask me to use that. It's a nightmare.")

As the months wore on, however, and their birthday was either looming (or worse, gone by), I was feeling pressured (by myself) to get the toilet training accomplished. By the time they were close to, or just past two, though, they were "civilized" and "smart" enough to know about worrying about accidents. (Although I certainly put no pressure on them not to have accidents, they - like their mother - put pressure on themselves to do things correctly.)

One child development principle is that the potty chair that seems so nifty and novel to a fifteen-month old isn't all that appealing to a child of around two. At two, children pretty much realize their potty habits are theirs and their alone, so potty training around that age may be the worst age to try. (On the other hand, who wants to pressure a one-year-old or wait until a child is past three?) (Oh, the dilemmas of potty training.....)

There are only so many months (12 to be exact) between the second birthday and the third, so once a few of those precious third-year months pass, it's easy to understand why a mother would start to panic.

While my method for my ever-so-conscientious-but-pretty-relectant children was not reverse psychology, but there was something about it that kind of seemed related to reverse psychology in some way. I call it my "kind-of-reverse approach (sort of)".

I let my toddlers "know" "we" had no real intention of changing the way we were doing things "although it might be fun to try going without a diaper just while we run to the store". I would assure them that we would not be out for very long, and if they had to go I would get a diaper on them. I'd also assure them that "we" could put the diaper back on when we got home.We gradually increased the length of time we were out, and after a few outings in the beginning nobody would be in a hurry to get the diaper back on when we got home. When we'd get home I'd wait a while and then say, "Hey - should we put the diaper on now?" They would tell me "not yet". Not having the diaper on, and having gone for a few hours without one, seemed to give them a little confidence; so they would often ask to use the potty. In the evening I'd put the diaper back on.My kids' big fear was not wanting to have an accident, and they kind of liked that sureness having a diaper on offered. They wanted to get out of diapers but just were too "serious" about accidents.I think the approach worked with them because it gave them the chance to gain confidence going out without the diaper, but knowing I "had no intention" of making them get rid of diapers all at once.I kind of approached it this way, "Well, one of these days when you're bigger you'll have to be wearing Big Boy pants" (but I made those comments separate from any attempts to get them potty trained). That thought let them know that that's what bigger kids and adults do. When I offered them the chance to "just try" going out I think they weren't threatened with feeling like it was a giant change in their lifestyle. I was careful to let them know they could make the decisions, and I'd go without what they wanted. I think it took away any power struggles, as well as any worries.

This approach worked with my particularly reluctant first child, but I suppose I thought it was a "freak thing", because when my next little guy came along, I returned to my old ways and tried to potty train the "conventional" way. With him, too, I learned (after failing with the conventional method) to use that "reverse approach". It worked equally well with him, and I don't know why I didn't just do things that way with him from the beginning.

By the time my daughter was born, I had finally figured out that it wasn't just my first son who wasn't interested in being trained, and that my approach had worked twice. So, with my daughter, I didn't even both setting out the potty chair when she reached a year or so.

I just waited until she was good and old (not three yet, but not all that far from it) and went with the approach that had worked for her brothers.

When they're too close to a year old they're still too young to really control their toilet urges, and even when they're trained it's often just a matter of their mother knowing when to head off what might be coming. When they around two, though, they're intelligent enough, and yet emotionally young enough, for the matter to be far more than a simple matter of "doing wetties in the toilet".

What I think I figured out, though, is if a parent realizes all the "mental issues" involved in training a two-year-old, it is still possible to outsmart that two-year-old.


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    • Lisa HW profile imageAUTHOR

      Lisa HW 

      7 years ago from Massachusetts

      kelleyward, thank you. I do think two can, at least for a lot of little kids, be the worst age to hope to accomplish toilet-training. Three-year-olds, by nature, tend to happier to try to "go with the program", as well as please adults. A mature two-plus would, of course, be similar to a child who had reached a stage of wanting to please adults and go with the program earlier than some; but even if a two-year-old is generally mature/"advanced" that doesn't necessarily include the type of maturity required for being happy to go with the toilet-training program. :)

      With four-year-olds (and almost-four's or advanced three's; if you think about it; first, they've become more "set in their ways". Then, they're old enough to be more aware of any worries they may have about changing those ways, or changing them without running into problems. Also, for a lot of late toilet-trainers, the issue has become a bigger one in the household, which can make them that much more nervous or uncomfortable (or even stubborn) about going with the program. At that point, a lot of them have been hearing all the messages about being a "big boy" or "big girl" or about how important it is they stop relying on diapers. I think, best case, a lot of them can feel like the stakes are a lot higher than they really should feel they are (just because parents often make those stakes seem so much higher by the way they pass the sense of urgency on). Worst case, little kids can be made to feel bad about themselves because they haven't been able to do what they're expected to do. I'd assume that some are made to feel less secure (never a good situation for learning something new) or else the most secure ones are probably aggravated at being "harassed" about it - and dig in their heels.

      Older toilet-trainers can also be "smart" enough to know that they shouldn't admit something like being afraid they'll fall "down the toilet", or if they've already told someone that they've been probably had it explained that couldn't happen. I don't think an almost-four child can always buy the explanation about plumbing enough to overcome their awareness of how quickly and easily water gets swooshed away down the toilet. They may "get" that they're too big, but they may not be able to trust that their parents really know what they're talking about when it comes to something as mysterious to them as the realities of the pipes and plumbing that they can't see.

      I almost wonder if it would help to bring a child to the local Home Depot and show them what a toilet looks like underneath, or at least show them pictures of a cross-section of a toilet. Something else maybe: Take off the tank lid and show them how any flushing noises happens and why. Maybe a lot of people do that. It never occurred to me. I think a lot of mystery and "myth" might be dispelled if some children saw some of those things. :) Just a thought...

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I enjoyed reading this. I tried and my two oldest did not go for it until they were 3 and the last one 4. I tried all the books etc. they were not ready until they were ready. I agree that so far with my two oldest a different method was needed. My baby seems to not like being dirty so maybe he will train earlier. Thanks for the information!

    • Jenna Estefan profile image

      Jenna Estefan 

      8 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Thanks for the info. I have potty training for the first time coming up here soon and I found some useful information in your hub.

    • mommies angels29 profile image

      mommies angels29 

      9 years ago

      You have great tips about potty training in the toddler stage. It is amazing at how one method of potty training works for noe child but it takes a different method to work for your other child. Great hub.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      11 years ago from California Gold Country

      When I was going through this stage with mine, my mom always used to tell me that she had never met anyone that hadn't learned.

    • Lisa HW profile imageAUTHOR

      Lisa HW 

      11 years ago from Massachusetts

      That's for noticing the type. :)

    • shailini profile image


      11 years ago from Bangalore, India

      Should the title be " Toilet Training - The Only Thing That Worked with My Three Children"? you may deny this comment without publishing.

    • shailini profile image


      11 years ago from Bangalore, India

      Excellent hub.


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