Game of Porcelain Thrones

In the game of porcelain thrones: you pee… or you try again later.

Potty training is a very exciting time in a parent’s life. It’s exciting because, once complete, your child can be dramatically more independent. And, you don’t have to buy diapers (though maybe some still for nighttime). Potty training is also exciting because you are constantly on your toes, waiting for your child’s body to… function.

It’s important to remember that the purpose of potty-training is three-fold: to develop body recognition of the sensations of needing to use the bathroom, muscle conditioning to hold bodily functions until getting to the bathroom, and an understanding of appropriate bathroom conduct. With all the tricks and gimmicks and “Three-Day” promises available, it’s important to keep the focus on these goals. In my experience, I’ve found that implementing the following five principles will help you train more effectively and sustainably.


Many parents let their children have books or toys or even electronics while they sit on the toilet to make them comfortable. But we don’t want them comfortable. We want them attentive.

If we want their brain to sync up with their body so that they can learn when and how to control it, we can’t distract them. Recently, a mother I worked with told me that I potty trained her son so well that he’s dry through the nights. I attribute this at least partly to my unabashed expectation that his potty-time was that chance for him to develop those neural pathways that manage bodily functions.

“But I don’t have to go!”

I was working with a four-year-old who kept reaching down and grabbing.

“Okay, Liam, it’s potty-time,” I said.

“But I don’t have to go,” he responded.

“Okay, but it’s potty-time.”

He walked into the bathroom. “But I don’t have to go.”

“That’s fine, but it’s potty-time.”

In the bathroom, he pulled his shorts down and then instantly back up. “Okay, I tried,” he said as he turned to leave.

“Oh, it’s potty-time right now.”

He did it again but added a quick hip thrust.

We went back and forth a few more rounds. Then, I heard a steady stream flowing into the bowl.

Whether it’s inspired by visual cues or adhering to a schedule, when it’s potty-time, it’s potty-time. Listen to them, but trust yourself.

No M&Ms

If I was being potty-trained and I got a candy every time I went, I’d try to go and make a few drops every couple of minutes. This is not an original idea. I stole it from a three-year-old.

I’m not a fan of using anything that’s unhealthy as a reward, especially with potty training. Reward-based training is not a sustainable practice because, at some point, you’re going to discontinue the reward. And when you do cut them off, you may experience some backlash (“Why should I pee for free?”) or setbacks.

Captain Underpants

One morning, I came in to work and saw that the father had allowed his son to put his underwear on over his diaper. So he got to wear undies but he could still go in his diaper whenever he wanted. Why would we grant a child the privilege of wearing underwear if we aren’t concurrently asking the discipline required of them? I quickly rectified the situation.

Underwear is special. I hammered this point in so much when I began potty-training my niece that my sister began mocking me to anyone who inquired about how potty-training was going. “Do you know how special it is that we get to wear underwear?” she’d exaggerate. But, the child needs to care about the honor of wearing them to not want to soil them.

It is important that the child gets to pick her pair, at the store if possible, and definitely her pair for the day, so that she’s invested in keeping them dry.

I.P. Freely

Letting your child run around naked and pee on trees is not the same as potty training. That’s like saying you sat in a Jacuzzi yesterday so you’re ready for the 200-meter freestyle.

Is peeing on a bush in an emergency situation better than going in the pants? Yes. But for general application, this free-spirit mentality is not the same as the recognition, control, and calculated release required of true potty training.


Understand that negative experiences can discourage the process.  So don’t shame or force, just guide.  Remain emotionally detached from challenges but stay committed and consistent to your process. This is all practice, so bear in mind that it’s not about how quickly they’re potty trained, it’s about how well they’re potty trained.

And remember: Rome’s plumbing wasn’t built in a day.


2 thoughts on “Game of Porcelain Thrones

  1. Regarding I.P. Freely
    You know, we moved to the country and have our own 10 acres now. Our two oldest are potty trained (and also boys) so when they are outside doing stuff we started letting them use trees…or whatever else is handy and not hand held, as targets. Over time I have adopted the same approach because, even being a potty trained adult, it’s just easier than walking inside (and I also figure at some level it keeps wild animals from getting too close to the house). However, I did catch myself (luckily, in time) walking in one of the parks in the city with the kids and thinking that since I was outside in a wooded area I could simply go. I didn’t…but I did use it as a teachable moment, instructing them that if they go in public as an adult it is possible to end up listed as a sex offender on the State Police site.

    • Thanks for your comment!

      I wasn’t trying to say that peeing outside is wrong. Rather, I’m suggesting that when you are potty training a child, making it an acceptable choice to simply “go” right there (wherever that may be) does not ask them to develop all of the skills associated with being “potty-trained” (i.e. the ability to hold it).

      Furthermore, you have demonstrated a good example: if a child is potty-trained peeing into the toilet, he will develop the awareness to understand when it is okay to go outside and when it isn’t. We’ve all been camping or hiking or in an emergency situation, but if it’s just been “Oh, you have to go? Let loose!” then he thinks they’re all acceptable situations (when they clearly are not).

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