Living With Children: Toilet training misinformation


QUESTION: My grandmother maintains that her children – my mother and her two siblings, all born in the 1950s – were completely toilet trained at 18 months. Her terse explanation: “I just gave them proper instruction.” My pediatrician says 18 months is rushing things. What do you think?

ANSWER: Your pediatrician is repeating the post-1960s toilet-training narrative, which is simply wrong. When it came to toilet training in the 1950s, 18 months was not regarded as “rushing things.” According to a survey conducted in the early ‘50s by Harvard and several other top universities, 9 of 10 American children were toilet trained by 23 months.

Your grandmother’s explanation is spot on. Mothers in her day approached toilet training very matter-of-factly, much the same way they taught their children to eat with spoons. The two tasks are very similar, in fact. Both are self-help skills, require patience, guidance, and encouragement, and involve a certain amount of mess in the beginning.

Because “experts” do not babble on about “readiness signs” for spoon-training or predict dire psychological consequences if a child is not allowed to decide for himself when to use a spoon, parents approach teaching a child to use utensils casually and straightforwardly, much the same way parents approached toilet training when commonsense ruled childrearing. Consequently, it is rare indeed to find a 2-year-old refusing to use a spoon.

I recently received a letter from a woman who reported that she began toilet training with each of her five children around 12 months. In every case, training was successfully culminated by 18 months. She freely admits that she had to first train herself to be cognizant of signals from her child that elimination was imminent.

It all began one morning when said mom discovered her first child, just short of 12 months, had a clean diaper. She sat him on the potty, gave him a piece of toast, and he had a bowel movement.

“I learned,” she writes, “his rhythms and he learned my vocabulary. He quickly grew to prefer dry, clean pants, and began letting me know when he had to go.”

She and her husband praised, let him watch them using the toilet, and helped him when he signaled the need for help. She followed the same plan with her other three children.

That experience led her to conclude, consistent with your grandmother’s testimony, that toilet training is primarily a matter of communication. She’s convinced that by starting to train early, the child will become quickly intolerant of his or her own messy diapers and, consequently, more cooperative.

The start-early-principle applies to a lot of parenting matters, in fact. Discipline, especially.

[Family psychologist John Rosemond:, Copyright 2022, John K. Rosemond]