Learning to Use the Toilet

Don't stress out if your child is slow to learn.

The term “toilet training” is really a misnomer. You don’t train your child to use the toilet as much as you help them become comfortable doing so when they are developmentally and emotionally ready.

I asked my friend Nadine when her daughter learned to use the toilet. "One-and-a-half," she said. "It was a breeze. Katie just told us when she needed to go and we took her to the bathroom."

This was not our case. Our son, Dash, was three and a half before he was able to use the bathroom regularly. He was the only kid in his preschool who the teacher had to change.

Our friends Susan and Jack's son, Chase, wasn't toilet-trained until he was well past four. But Susan says she didn't sweat it. "Kids are ready when they're ready." And she's right.

The key to learning to use the toilet is to remember, it's not a horse race. Just because your neighbor's kid was out of diapers before he could walk, and all of your sister's children wore "big boy" and "big girl" underwear by the age of one, doesn't mean your child will do the same. And it's OK.

If you don't "go with the flow," everyone is going to wind up unhappy. You and your child will feel like failures and the grandparents will second that emotion. They'll even offer great tips like, "Just put him on that potty chair and don't let him get up until he's done something important!"

Of course we didn't start out with the go-with-the-flow attitude. When Dash was a year old, we bought every style of potty chair available and placed them in the bathroom. But since Dash never went into the bathroom, we moved them to the kitchen. Finally, we had three potty chairs in the center of our living room.

They sat there for several years. Dash never actually peed in the potty chairs, but he did sit on them a whole lot. Who wouldn't? Every time he went near the things, we took pictures, gave presents, and cheered.

We bought little tissue paper targets and floated them in the toilet. "Hit the bulls eye, Dash!" He'd fire off a barrage of pee. Malcolm lit matches and hurled them into the toilet bowl. "Put out the fire, Dash!" Dash would aim his fire hose and squelch those fires. He'd also hit the back of the toilet, the wall, and us. But who cared? Our little boy was peeing in the potty!

With our daughter, Skye, we used an unusual tactic. One day I happened to find some pink and blue cake decorating sprinkles in the cupboard. On a whim, I asked Skye if she'd like to do a magic trick in the bathroom. "Yes, please, Mommy!"

I sprinkled the blue bottle into the toilet and said, "Pee on this blue magic dust and you can change its color to green." She leapt onto the toilet seat and let 'er rip. Sure enough, her yellow pee turned the blue to green. Later I grabbed the pink cake sprinkles. "Let's turn this pink to orange." This time Dash got into the act.

Soon my kids and all of their friends were begging me to sprinkle the dust in the toilet so they could make magic. I finally just left the bottles on the back of the toilet and the kids used them whenever they wanted.

Another couple’s daughter, Willa, was toilet-trained on a long car trip. Knowing that the only reason her dad would pull over was if she had to throw up or pee, Willa started announcing she had to go to the bathroom. That allowed her to get out of the car and run around. For that, Willa had to go sit on a toilet in a public restroom and actually pee. And she did it.

Getting kids to pee in the potty is a big step. But getting them to poop in that same potty is a giant leap. Some people say children feel their poop is a vital part of them, like an arm or a leg. And the idea of just letting it go is agonizing. I believe that.

Linda and Dan's son Kenny was perfectly fine with peeing, but the instant he had to poop he'd demand a diaper. Kenny just couldn't stand the feeling of something falling a great distance out of his bottom. It was scary.

Other kids won't let go until they know where their poop is headed. Our friend Tom arranged a tour of the local sewer plant for his son, Ben. Once Ben knew where the poop went, he was perfectly fine with using the toilet.

For our children, the leap to actually pooping in the toilet came by accident. When I caught Dash squatting outside in mid-poop, I scooped him up and ran to the bathroom. He finished pooping on the toilet. The same thing happened with Skye. Both of them realized that using the toilet wasn't so bad.

The summer before preschool starts, parents of diaper-clad toddlers start to panic about learning to use the toilet. Before you put your child in potty boot camp, check with your preschool about their rules. Skye's school preferred her to be totally trained, but they didn't mind dealing with some poop mistakes for a month or two, as long as they didn't have to wash out underwear. We kissed their feet and said, "Here's a supply of wipes, two dozen panties, and if anything happens—throw them in the trash." By the end of November, Skye was a skilled toileteer.

Malcolm and I had a little ceremony. We gave the diaper bag and leftover disposables to our neighbor. After five years of one or two children in diapers, we were finally free!

Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner have written more than 70 books for teens and young readers. They live in Oregon with their two angelic children.