When our baby seems interested in walking, do we take over one day and say, “Today is the day! No more crawling! I’ve decided it is time for you to use those legs. Let’s get up.”
Sounds stressful, right? Instead, we probably choose to observe their gross motor development. We wait until they start to pull up, stand, wobble. We do what we can to support and empower them as they strengthen their muscles and coordination. And when they do finally walk, we don’t scold or shame them for missing a step and falling, because those falls are part of how they refine their new-found mobility.
Similarly, we don’t bribe them to continue walking after we’ve seen them do it. We might praise and encourage, but we don’t put a massive spotlight on this new skill with a formal reward chart to get them to walk more for us. Instead, we just acknowledge their effort and continue to provide opportunity for them to walk for themselves.
So why wouldn’t we grant this same patient guidance for our children when it comes to gaining toilet independence? This question is exactly why I’m ditching potty training and switching to potty learning in time for my daughter.
In potty learning, it is viewed as a skill that the child learns naturally. It happens over an extended period of time, and the role of the adult is to support the child through the different phases as they occur. The focus is on normalizing the potty as part of the every day routine.
In potty training, it is viewed as a skill that the child needs to be trained to do. It happens over a concise period of time pre-determined by the parent. The focus is on mastery of the process.
In retrospect, I think this is why potty training didn’t resonate with us when we loosely incorporated it with my son around 26 months. I thought I was offering patient guidance since I waited for his readiness, but having time and mastery become the focal point still created unnecessary stress and power struggles.
I always aligned with the idea that it was to be learned naturally, but I didn’t have many tools or resources on how to actually adjust my role to reflect this. I was bombarded with conflicting messages of rigid three-day training plans or doing absolutely nothing and waiting until they got much older. Waiting with no involvement didn’t feel right to me, either. I didn’t want to force independence in my son, but I also didn’t want to ignore his clear asks to be done with diapers.
I now know that potty learning doesn’t ask you to remove yourself; it actually encourages you to be more engaged, and from earlier on. From a Montessori perspective, helping your child learn how their body works starts at birth. It’s why we do things like forego baby gear, and instead opt for a safe movement area where they can freely move. How this applies to potty learning is in our early touch and communication – it’s in a gesture as minor as ensuring they aren’t sitting in wet or soiled diapers for too long so that they do not get used to the feeling of wetness, or even a decision like diapering in cloth rather than disposable so that they can feel that difference more noticeably.
Here’s how we’re doing things differently this time with our daughter:
- We exposed her to the potty early – We placed a small potty out at 12 months and created room for her to join us in our bathroom. This allows her to observe, mimic the process and grow comfortable with this space of the house. With my son, we didn’t place a potty out until after age 2 when we expected him to start using it. With potty learning, we value the introduction of the potty as a step in and of itself.
- We are normalizing the bathroom as routine – Potty training directs the child to use the restroom in order to prompt use of the potty. Potty learning directs the child to use the restroom in order to prompt routine. Similar to something like family dinnertime, sitting my daughter down to eat is an opportunity for her to participate, but we do not force her to eat. When I prompt her to join me in the bathroom, the focus is not on forcing her to go, but on helping her associate the bathroom as the place where we go.
- There’s no timeline, no pressure – Potty learning treats the child’s progress as intrinsically motivated, meaning they progress per their own desire to seek independence. Potty training is generally motivated externally. We won’t be using any reward charts or bribery because we are harnessing the satisfaction she already has in accomplishing something new for herself.
- My job is to assist her, not to judge her – My role in potty learning is much more logistical than emotional. I keep my own judgments and emotions out of the process. There is no over-praising of using the potty if she does decide to use it, and accidents are not treated as mistakes or setbacks, but rather lessons.
- We view it as a journey – Perhaps my favorite shift, and most misunderstood, is this concept of treating it as a journey. Just because we start this process earlier does not mean that it is work-intensive. The goal is not to get her to do it sooner, but to slow down the introduction of this process. Instead of one day saying, “Here are all the steps,” we are simply spreading out the guidance of these steps as she seems capable.
At 19 months, we are in a period of focusing on body awareness and instilling routine. We have switched during the daytime to cotton training pants at home, where she will be able to better associate when she goes and how that feels. We were inspired to take this step after noticing some leaps in her dressing skills, communication and readiness. I’m excited to see how her journey progresses, and I am relieved to be experiencing this milestone in a way that feels a bit more relaxed and flexible to our family.
Have you ever heard of potty learning? Is it something you did, whether intentionally or not? How did it work for your own family?
Here are some other blogs and articles that I found helpful on potty learning: