Wait Until the Child is Ready for Potty Training? Definitely Not!
UK potty training crisis: five-year-olds still wear diapers, elementary school pupils are incontinent and one in six children is not properly toilet trained. Daphna Tayar, an educational-developmental consultant, says that the situation in Israel is not far from this, and that there are a number of clear reasons why this is happening.
Daphna Tayar | Mako | Published 10/07/17 06:27
A "diaper quitting crisis" is taking place in Britain. An article published a few days ago in the British Daily Mail provides an up-to-date snapshot of what is happening in schools in England: a 70% increase in school reports about children who still can't use the toilet properly. Educators of five-year-olds tell about children starting school still wearing diapers, and that one in six children is still not properly toilet trained. In elementary school, too, there are more and more children who suffer from some form of difficulty, and in fact are still not properly toilet trained.
Surprising? Definitely not! Not to me. What is happening in Britain is happening in all Western countries, including Israel. Every year, I meet hundreds of parents of preschool kids, elementary school children and even parents of adolescents, whose children have difficulties and problems in using the toilet - difficulties associated with a poor process of weaning off diapers. These problems come at a heavy price, both practical and emotional: they damage the child's self-image and social relationships, and they harm parent-child dynamics.
Wait for "Natural" Weaning? Definitely Not!
Somewhere around the year 2000, I was sitting in the room of the late Prof. Pnina Klein, the Israel Prize laureate for education. Prof. Klein was the advisor for my thesis on problems in weaning off diapers. I claimed that the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) recommendations about potty training were erroneous. I argued that recommendations to parents to delay and postpone stopping using diapers and wait patiently until the toddler is "ready" and expresses desire for potty training - are fundamentally wrong and are the reason for the dramatic increase in toilet training problems in recent years. I shall never forget Prof. Klein's reaction. She listened and said: "You're the boy shouting 'The King is naked!'"
In 2011, I published my book The Wean-Wean Advantage in which I warned about the problematic consequences of the current approach to weaning off diapers. I addressed two main points in this approach:
1. Age of Potty Training:
While only a few decades ago the average age for starting potty training in Western countries (and in Israel) was a little over one year old, the average age nowadays is almost three. Decade by decade, the age for potty training keeps to be pushed forward. I use to bitterly joke that at this rate of procrastination, in a few years we will have diaper-changing stations in first grade classrooms. Looks like this will soon be no joke.
2. The Educational Approach:
In recent decades new theories have been offered regarding potty training and today the experts recommend waiting until the child is "ready" and expresses interest, desire and willingness to quit diapers. The current prevalent approach to potty training is an approach of permissive parenting which leaves to the toddler the initiative and management of the weaning process.
The prevalent approach to quitting diapers was developed over the past decades based on technological and educational changes. In the early 1960s, disposable diapers were invented and in the following decades they became common and available to all. Since then, using diapers has become ever so convenient, resulting in potty training procrastination. It so happened that in the same decade that the single-use diaper was invented, changes took place in the prevailing educational worldviews. The "Child in the Center" approach took hold among the schools of thought that had ruled until then in the world of education and psychology, and educational approaches became liberal and more permissive. Professionals recommended parents to be less authoritative with their children. Many parents took this as a suggestion to become "friends" with their children and that they should try to accommodate their children's behaviors to a huge extent.
Thus, the new theories serve to calm the conscience. It seems that no one is in a hurry to toilet train and that no one minds the children staying immersed in their excretions for many unnecessary months. I am certain, though, that if we were to wake up tomorrow to a world without disposable diapers, we would quickly see an abandonment en masse of these false theories and the age of quitting diapers would drop back to the historical age of one or one and a half years.
The combination of these two changes: on the one hand the convenience of disposable diapers, and on the other hand the perception that the child needs to somehow "mature" to potty training, became a lethal combination – we witnessed a dramatic increase in problems related to toilet training and incontinence.
The Writing is on the Wall, But Most People Choose to Ignore it
I choose not to ignore it and offer a different approach to quitting diapers. The main premises underlying the "Wean-Wean Advantage" approach are:
Early weaning (between the ages of one and up to one and a half years, and in any case before the age of two years) is preferable to late quitting. There is no need to wait for the child to be "ready" - there is enough evidence that babies can control their sphincters even before the age of one year. Like other mammals, human babies are not born to be diapered. They are "ready" from the start. If they were not diapered for months and years on end, they would not lose their ability to control the sphincters. When we postpone weaning until the "terrible two" age, characterized by assertiveness, rebelliousness, and resistance of the toddler, we are asking for unnecessary difficulties.
Weaning in the authoritative-benevolent parenting approach. At whatever age the weaning process begins, it must be led by authoritative parents. In this educational approach, parents do not "go with the flow" of the child, but assume responsibility and actively manage the process of weaning off diapers. They do not wait for the toddler to declare that he is willing to quit, initiate the process or ask to relieve himself. The parents know that this process (like any other educational process) must be led by them. When potty training is done according to the parental leadership approach - the problems and difficulties currently widespread can be avoided.
The "Wean-Wean Advantage" approach has opened up a new discourse on the subject of going diaper-free. It is already possible to spot welcome winds of change: more and more parents are opening up to accepting and applying early weaning in an authoritative-leading educational approach. Kindergarten teachers and therapists are exposed to the approach, discovering and understanding its advantages. But we still face the challenge of turning this approach into the prevailing approach, and making it the most common and accepted approach. When we can do this, we can save a lot of suffering, worry and frustration from thousands of parents and children.
* Daphna Tayar is an educational-developmental consultant and author of The Wean-Wean Advantage and Parental Leadership.