I found “Timmy’s Potty” laying on the carpet beneath our bed this morning. It’s a toilet training video that my wife purchased for our son about a month ago. It was odd to see it again. I remember the day my wife brought it home from the hippie bookstore. More specifically, I remember how she and I watched it together after our son had gone to bed to see if it was appropriate for him.
We’ve been doing this before we let him watch any video ever since we sat down as a family to enjoy the harmless-seeming “World of Butterflies,” unaware that it would end in an extremely graphic five minute montage of birds devouring butterflies that would send our son into a mild state of catatonia.
Fortunately, “Timmy’s Potty” was no “World of Butterflies.” It was just a bland little story about a boy learning how to use his potty. It had a horrible, horrible theme song, but my wife and I are used to horrible children’s music. The only thing that troubled us about the video was the fact that Timmy, the boy in the story who was learning how to use his potty, looked very young. In fact, Timmy looked more like our ten month old daughter than our three and a half year old son.
My wife and I spent quite a while discussing how our son would feel about this. Would watching this little Timmy kid learning how to use a toilet upset him in some way? Would it make him feel immature or unduly pressured to get on with his own toilet training? We decided that it wasn’t a big deal and it didn’t prove to be one. Our son watched Timmy’s Potty a few times and didn’t seem to even register that a child who was much younger than he was learning a skill that he doesn’t possess. Mostly, our son just liked the horrible song and the scene, early in the story, in which Timmy uses his potty as a house for his stuffed animals.
Our son tried this himself a few times, then moved on to other games. Soon after that, he lost interest in Timmy’s Potty and probably not too long after that, Timmy’s Potty got stuffed under our bed, another relic of our failed efforts to toilet train him.
Our son is not the only three and a half year old who’s still wearing diapers, but he seems to be one of very small group. Most of his friends were toilet trained sometime during their second year. According to the experience of many of our fellow parents and most of the books on this subject, there’s usually a “window” in that year, during which toddlers get interested in the toilet, start wanting to watch their parents go to the bathroom, want to talk about how it all works, and find it enjoyable to sit on those little plastic potties. Supposedly, if you act during this window of child interest, you won’t find much resistance to getting rid of diapers. The child will want to toilet train and will therefore do it willingly and feel good about it. And then, I guess, the child will go on to have a happy and healthy life.
Unfortunately, our son went through his “window of interest” just as his younger sister was about to be born and we’d been advised that this was a bad time to toilet train, window or not. New siblings often inspire “regression,” we were told, so if we trained our son right before his sister’s birth it would not last–he’d want his diapers back as soon as she showed up. And, indeed, when his baby sister arrived, our son regressed like crazy: he wanted to get in her stroller, in her crib, wear her clothes, resume breast feeding and generally, just act like a baby. It was fine with us. We were very worried that he’d resent his new sister and we were more than willing to let him sit slack-jawed and drooling like a newborn if that made him feel comfortable with her. And we were very glad that we’d ignored the window and not wasted our time toilet training him.
The problem is that almost a year has passed since my son’s window of interest closed, and he’s shown no further inclination towards giving up his diapers. Whenever we ask him, he always says he’s “not ready.” So we’ve waited and waited, hoping that some bright day he’ll announce his readiness, meanwhile watching all of his friends toilet train and wondering if we were doing something wrong. Then, this past November, our son started having very regular bowel movements once a day, almost always at the end of his nap; never at school, never outside our apartment.
My wife and I knew this was considered to be a sign of readiness to toilet train, and when we realized it was happening, we talked to his teacher about it. She said that he’d probably ask to be trained if we gave him a little more encouragement. So we took him out to buy his own underpants and started talking to him about how his friends at school wear underpants and use the toilet, and how we use the toilet, how his grandparents use the toilet, and so on and so on. We talked and talked and talked. We read a ridiculous book called “Everybody Poops” a thousand times and a lot of slightly less ridiculous books a comparable number of times. We bought a new plastic potty, even though we already had a plastic potty, thinking that a new one would instill new interest. We put it in the middle of our living room and let our son decorate it with magic markers and animal stickers. Our son bore all of this patiently and with good humor. He liked his underpants and the books and all the talking. He enjoyed decorating his new potty. He was even willing to sit on the potty with his clothes on and pretend he’s going to the bathroom. But that was it. Any suggestion that he take off his diaper and actually go to the bathroom in the potty was firmly rebuked.
Months passed, other suggestions and encouragements were made, including Timmy’s Potty, but our son remained unchanged. Finally, my wife decided that we should do something more active. She read a couple of books on the subject and formulated a plan: for two weeks, we would tell our son that we knew he was ready to toilet train. We’d say that we would be able to help him, and his teachers would be able to help, and he would definitely be able to do it. Instead of asking him if he was ready, we’d tell him–in a variety of ways, subtle and not so subtle–that we knew he was ready. And then, when the two weeks of preparation and encouragement were over, we’d take off the diapers and put on some underpants. He’d still wear a diapers during his naps and at night, but other than that, he’d use the potty. If there were accidents, fine, accidents were to be expected. We’d just change his clothes and show him his potty and say that next time, maybe he’d like to use it.
During the two week preparation period, we didn’t talk about toilet training incessantly, just every so often, whenever it seemed appropriate. We tried to be sensitive to whether or not our son wanted to talk about it himself. We tried–but it really didn’t seem to matter. Our son simply didn’t want to talk about it at all. Whenever we’d tell him that we knew he was ready to use the toilet, he’d get this kind of frightened look on his face and respond, in a quavering but insistent voice, that no, he wasn’t ready. If we asked him why, he’d say, “I love diapers.”
This was almost too much to bear, but we kept going forward, trying new and unsuccessful ways of broaching the subject, motivated, I guess, by a fear of backing down too easily. However, as the two weeks wore on and our son continued to show fear, not interest, in toilet training, we decided to modify our plan a bit. Instead of beginning the training on a Saturday morning, we thought we’d start it on Friday afternoon after his nap. This would mean that the first period of his diaperlessness would only last a few hours: from around 5 p.m. when he gets up from his nap until 8 p.m., when he goes to sleep for the night. He usually stays home during these hours and plays with his toys and it’s a comfortable time for him and we thought this might ease the transition into his new routine.
When the appointed Friday arrived, my wife took off his diapers and offered him a selection of underpants. He started screaming and crying. My wife called me at work and I told her to just wait it out. Our son, like almost every other kid, has learned to use tantrums to get what he wants. He’ll often have a very dramatic initial reaction to things he doesn’t like and then calm down if he realizes we’re not affected by his outburst. The trick is to not be affected. I reminded my wife of this and she said that she felt it was fine to ignore a tantrum over something minor–like say telling him he can’t bring all of his stuffed animals to the dinner table–but that this was more serious. A bad toilet training experience can leave emotional scars. I told her I was pretty sure he’d calm down.
In the background I could hear him yelling “Give me a clean diaper!” between agonized sobs and choking noises. He was really having a fit and I was glad I wasn’t there to witness it. But, after a few minutes, as I’d predicted, he quieted down, picked out some underpants and asked for a cup of juice. By the time I got home from work, he was playing happily and wanted to show me his underpants. He even seemed proud of them.
I felt that things were going reasonably well. Getting rid of the diapers was a first step–and to my mind the biggest step. For a few hours after he’d gone to bed, I felt optimistic. My wife, however, was concerned that he hadn’t gone anywhere near his potty, and didn’t seem inclined to. He’d had a bowel movement in his diaper at the end of his nap, as usual, and then spent the three hours in his underpants holding urine in his bladder, waiting for us to put his nighttime diaper on. My wife thought the fact he’d controlled himself for that long was a problem. I disagreed. I expected that the next day, when he’d have to wear his underpants for a much longer stretch of time–7 a.m. until 3 p.m.–he’d either have an accident or use his potty, and that things would kind of proceed naturally from there.
But things didn’t proceed. My son put his underpants on in the morning without protest, but he continued to try his best to control himself and wait to go to the bathroom until he got his diapers back at nap time. He quickly became remarkably good at this, going hours and hours without urinating, even squeezing his penis through what I guess were difficult periods. He had a few accidents but they did not deter him–he just asked for new clothes and then refused all suggestions that he try using his potty, still insisting that he wasn’t ready. Soon, he stopped having accidents, and then, on the third day of our toilet training experiment, he stopped having his regular bowel movements. He was, my wife and I decided, probably constipated from worry. Or maybe all the effort he was making to control his bladder was having some kind of effect on his bowels. We didn’t try to figure it out any more than that. We just stopped the toilet training. We gave him back his diapers and put his underpants the bottom drawer of his dresser and told him that he can get them out whenever he’s ready. He seemed totally uninterested and hasn’t mentioned the word “underpants” since. By the next day, his regular bowel movements had returned and he’d stopped clutching his penis.
My wife and I talked to the social worker at my son’s school. She told us that we’d done the right thing. She said that our son will eventually be ready to toilet train and when he is, he’ll let us know, and he’ll do it happily and be proud of it. She said the reason we can’t imagine this ever happening is that he’s not ready yet.
I thought about pointing out the flaws in her argument, saying that just because you can’t imagine something happening does not assure that it’s going to happen–rather, most things you can’t imagine happening are, in fact, never going to happen. But I decided against it. Instead, I sat there silently and smiled and held my wife’s hand and felt good about our decision to abandon the toilet training. I have no idea when or how our son is going to get trained. I assume that he will, but at the moment, I don’t really care. I just want to leave my son alone for a while. I am embarrassed about the way I have treated him in the last few months. It pains me to think of the hours we’ve spent together hovering over a potty, my face screwed up in a fake smile, watching him there, listening unhappily as I try to say in a disinterested voice: “Would you like to practice going poop?”
Even now, writing it down, I feel sick.