I Learned Not Trying to Potty Train is the Best Way to Potty Train

My son was one of the only kids his age still wearing diapers. But after stressing for so long, I realized forcing him to potty train wasn't the way to go.

illustration of boy on toilet
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (2).

When my boy was almost 3, he had zero interest in the potty. We had potties out around the house for months—one in the bathroom and one in the living room—hoping he might try one of them when it was time to do his business. We even tried to bribe him with cookies, new toys, and his favorite Netflix shows, but nothing stuck.

Very few kids were sporting diapers at his age anymore and it was no surprise to me when I found out a lot of moms around me were diligent in their potty pushing. The most popular method, based on the book, Oh Crap! Potty Training: Everything Modern Parents Need to Know to Do It…, seemed quick and simple: For three days, keep your kid naked at home and he’ll get it. And for other kids, that worked.

Then there was my son and me. At first, I’ll admit, I kept pushing off any real potty-training method because maybe I was the one actually set in our diaper ways. I liked the ease of changing him without having to run to a toilet at every outing. I liked the idea of long drives without stopping or whatever I imagined life would be like without the "convenience" of diapers.

Maybe my boy was feeling my no pressure no potty attitude because I remember reading him a potty book one night and he actually peed through his diaper mid-book! Or maybe that was a sign that we just weren't ready.

Then I spoke to my son's pre-school teachers, who were old school, and they offered a different approach: "Don't push it and don't train him. What's the rush? Let him tell you when he's ready!"

That was a relief for me. But many moms have to rush the potty training because some pre-school programs around the country won't allow kids in with diapers. I was fortunate not to have to deal with that since the director at my son’s school in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York doesn’t believe in that.

"When you force potty training with a child who is not physically, mentally, and emotionally ready, a parent can easily create anxieties, power struggles, shame, and a strain on the parent/child relationship," says Irene Balint-Wemer, a mom herself and also my child’s teacher. She adds if a program really understood a child's development, they would change their policy and if they don't, parents should look for a different program.

Some other moms I’ve spoken to have told me they didn’t believe in forcing their kids to use the toilet either. "I didn't use a specific method with my son, and I was pretty lazy about it, but he started using the potty consistently when he was about 2,” says Holly Scudero, a mom from Fairfax, Virginia. “No charts, no rewards, no timers, no timelines, or anything—just lots of talking, diaper-free time, and the patience to let him start telling me when he needed to go—although I did ask often.”

Still I wondered, when will my child actually be ready to shed those diapers? "There will be natural signs of readiness. For example, his diaper or pull-up is dry in the mornings, he is showing an interest, or he is talking about how his friends go on the potty,” explained Balint-Wemer. She told me her little trick of putting a gum ball machine by the potty and giving her child a gum ball every time they went. She said her children eventually potty trained themselves and assured me it would happen, especially if I backed off.

We felt reassured but my husband was still a little antsy, especially because our boy seemed to be the last one standing in diapers. That’s when we decided my husband would be the one to read every potty-training book and come up with a plan of attack—but after our trip to Florida.

Only, that never happened. A week before our trip, our boy sat on the potty one night and did his business. We cheered! The next day, I took him to school in superhero underwear, told his teachers to take over from there, and hoped for the best. Yes, I had no idea what I was doing, but I just felt like that was the right next step, even though most potty-training books would have told me it was the wrong one.

The next two to five days there were accidents and messy ones! A friend actually told me to "abort mission,” read the Oh Crap book she lent me, and try again, but I wasn't going back in time. In a few days, he got it. He ran to the potty when he had to go, and even stayed dry in underwear all night long. It was a miracle! Or maybe it was just normal. Either way, I can say my son potty trained himself.

The Bottom Line

What worked for me? Not sweating potty training and letting it just happen, then when it finally did, going with only underwear from then onwards.

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