Overcoming the toilet training ‘crisis’


By John Rosemond

Strolling through my go-to grocery store the other day, I happened down the baby products aisle where I spied packages of toilet-training pants featuring pictures of happy children who looked at least 3, some as old as 5.

The first question that came to mind: Why would a 5-year-old who is continuing to eliminate on himself be happy? Perhaps a spokesperson for the unnamed manufacturer of said diabolical apparel will answer that question for me.

In the mid-1950s, a study done by researchers from Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Princeton determined that close to 90 percent of 24-month-old American children were accident-free and had been for at least one month. That means 9 out of 10 children were completely toilet trained by no later than 23 months.

And then, in the 1960s, along came the Mr. Rogers of pediatrics, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, who claimed, without a shred of scientifically-obtained evidence, that the attempt to toilet train a child under age 24 months requires “force” and is therefore psychologically damaging.

In addition, Brazelton fabricated a wholly fictitious set of 10 or so behavioral “readiness signs” that he insisted be present before toilet training is attempted.

Mind you, the only readiness sign to which mothers in the pre-psychological parenting era (pre-1960s) paid attention was their own readiness to stop changing and washing diapers.

Almost instantly, Brazelton’s “child-centered” approach to toilet training became the gold standard in the pediatric community.

As pediatricians began advising mothers to hold off training until 30 to 36 months lest they wreak psychological havoc on their kids, a process that had taken 3 days to a week, on average, began taking months, even years. Likewise, mothers went from being fairly nonchalant about the entire affair to being toilet-training basket cases.

The problem rapidly expanded to the point where some psychologists began specializing in toilet training. In Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1970s, a psychologist advertised an in-home toilet training service. Yes, he would come to someone’s home and either toilet train the child in question or walk the parents through the process.

Books on how to toilet train began to proliferate. (I even wrote one in which I simply described how it was done before Brazelton threw his monkey wrench into the matter.) After all, where children are concerned, there is nothing new under the sun (despite propaganda to the contrary).

Do parents need specialized professional training to properly teach children to feed themselves? No, they do not.

Thankfully, no one with capital letters after his or her name has ever claimed that improper spoon training will begin a child’s descent into psychological pandemonium, even criminality. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time. There must be a market there, somewhere.

After all, there are several similarities between spoon training and toilet training. First, they both involve the digestive system. Second, they both involve messes. Third, said messes must be taken care of by parents (or nannies, as the case may be).

Surely someone smarter than myself can make a case for waiting to teach children to feed themselves until they are at least 5, lest an emotional apocalypse ensue.

Said someone – a Ph.D. psychologist, of course – could come up with spoon-training readiness signs, as in, “child shows no significant anxiety at being handed a small spoon covered in soft rubber.”

Then the recommendation that “child be allowed to handle and chew on rubber-coated spoon for at least a week before training in self-feeding actually begins.”

Within five years, we will have therapy and medication for “self-feeding anxiety disorder.”

I’m being a tad, but only a tad, facetious. Nonetheless, history strongly suggests that if a child-rearing problem doesn’t yet exist, the professional community can be counted upon to remedy the situation.

[Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.]