At two-and-a-half, I thought we were doing quite well with potty training. Our child was out of diapers, on the potty, and we had made dismantling of the changing table a family project (it is now an art center where creation is king, and the clean up of bodily fluids is a mere memory). Then I remembered my few, but impressionable run ins with parents that were practicing elimination communication, a process by which a parent or caregiver uses timing, signals, cues and intuition to address an infantís excretive needs, partially or completely avoiding the use of diapers. My first run in with elimination communication (or EC) was years ago when I noticed a 6-month-old boy in my son’s playgroup was “going commando.” I politely asked his parents and they explained to me the finer points of EC, and how they had avoided using diapers for most of his infancy. These were also the same people who refused to use electricity after nightfall, as they claimed it disturbed their family’s natural circadian rhythm. Regardless, they were living diaper-free, while the rest of us were amassing diaper refuse beyond comprehension (according to a Mother Jones article from a few years back, A typical baby goes through 3,800 disposable diapers in her first 2.5 years).
Now whether you go the conventional route with mountains of diapers in your wake, or opt for a more progressive and ambitious method, like EC, at some point, all children must learn to take charge of their own elimination functions, and all parents/caregivers must be there to make sure everything turns out ok. The average age for “potty training” in the United States is between 24 and 30 months. However, until the 1950s, most children were using the potty in the first few months of life and completely trained by age 1. In the 1970s, 18 months was an average age to start. And for many cultures outside the US, like in certain places in East Africa, 6 months is, and has been, the norm since anyone can remember. What happened America? How is it that our young have become so accustomed to sitting in their own filth?
According to a recent piece on Salon.com by the author Heather Turgeon, ” Kids on the changing table have been getting older through the decades. It’s partly thanks to bigger and more absorbent diapers. But we’ve also pushed back toilet training because in the mid 1900s, psychiatrists and pediatricians started talking about it as a psychologically meaningful stage of life — if mishandled, a minefield for anxieties and personality problems.” Some blame Freud for making the toilet training and anal retention pivotal issues in the development of a child’s personality and ability to socially adjust. Others blame the corporate diaper enablers who manufacture diapers that are such outstanding performers and form fitting for weights up to 40 lbs, that they leave the parents and children unmotivated to make the move from diaper to toilet. Either way, American children are once again lagging behind and paying dearly for it in diapers and clean up.
There exist all manner of ways and motivators to get children out of the nappy and onto the potty, including bargaining, gifts, candy, and humiliating sing alongs (see below):
Still, most children take their own sweet time making the transition, and most parents are loath (no matter how sick of changing diapers they might be) to push the issue. Besides eating and drinking, going to the bathroom is one of the only things a kid can truly control; if you take that control away, the prevailing concern is that you might put a dent in confidence, or trigger long term behavioral problems.
So what is it? Are Americans out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to making the move to the potty, or are we showing our kinder and gentler side by being ultra permissive? Should potty training or EC be the accepted norm at an early age? Has anyone out there tried something entirely new and had success or maybe failed miserably?