I am the stay-at-home father of a 4-year-old boy named Noah and a 2-year-old girl named Josefina. Everyone's always told me that potty training girls is easier than training boys. But I couldn't understand why. Would Jo one day simply put down her blocks, excuse herself, grab a copy of The New Yorker, and head into the bathroom, closing the door behind her? Because really, that was the only way it was going to be less work than training my son.
Potty training Noah was a breeze in large part because he was always with me. My wife, Karel, and I were typical first-time parents, terrified of leaving Noah to his own devices even for the amount of time it took for us to run to the bathroom. Our neurosis, combined with the fact that I was the one staying home with him, meant that I often found myself tossing him under my arm like a ham to go pee (not that I usually take a ham with me to pee). So from the earliest possible age, Noah had a constant example of how business was supposed to be conducted by men in the bathroom. And business was good; when the time was right, Noah completely bypassed the training program and, almost overnight, became the Chief Operating Officer of the toilet. During his time in that position we have never had a wet bed or a misplaced puddle.
Jo, on the other hand, is confused about how she is supposed to interact with the potty. By the time she arrived, Karel and I were well over our new-parent nerves; our attitude was that if something was really wrong while we were in the shower, in the basement doing laundry, or visiting the loo, the dog or Noah would alert us. Our relaxed attitude meant, among other things, that Jo never really had many opportunities to watch her mom pee, and that has left my daughter a little baffled about what's expected of her.
We were at the park the first time I noticed that something might be awry. Noah did what he normally does when he has to go: He shouted, "I have to go pee!" To which I calmly replied, "You know what to do."
Noah ran off to water his favorite tree, one that's just far enough away from the playground that I can avoid glares from other parents. He stood in front of the tree with his back to the park, per earlier lessons learned, and clamped his shirt between his chest and chin. I took up my position between Jo in the playground and Noah by his tree so that I could keep an eye on both of them. That's when I noticed that Jo had lifted up her own shirt, tucked it under her chin like Noah, and was now racing around the swingset, sticking out her tummy, and yelling something that sounded a lot like "Ah hago peee!" She finally settled near one of the legs of the jungle gym and waited for Noah to return. When Noah finished his transaction with the vegetation and Jo caught sight of him tucking in his shirt, she lowered her own shirt, lifted her hands, and yelled, "Taa daa!" Luckily, she had kept her bottoms on.
It was sort of adorable, and I chalked it up to a momentary bout of monkey see, monkey do. The next morning, however, Jo sauntered into the bathroom while I was using the toilet and began muscling me to the side. Dressed only in her diaper, she threw her ample belly over the lip of the toilet. After about 15 seconds she looked up and said, "Ahgo pee." Then she gave me a supportive pat behind the knee and wandered off while I was left to contemplate what had just happened. Sure enough, when I went to check the status of her diaper, it was full.
Karel and I took this as a sign that our little girl was ready for potty training -- a full six months earlier than our son had been, I might add. Sure, her understanding of the process was a little flawed, but this was a minor wrinkle that could be ironed out with some of our patented parenting hot air.
My wife began taking Jo to the bathroom with her whenever she could, which was not often, since she works full-time. Jo was less than enthusiastic about these fact-finding trips and usually spent her time emptying the towel cabinet, as opposed to getting helpful pointers from Mommy.
Confusion seemed to be spreading. "Look, Daddy! Jo is learning how to use her penis to go pee like a big girl!" Noah exclaimed one morning. Then he clapped. Jo beamed with pride. As I again changed her diaper, I decided that Karel should step up her efforts in the bathroom.
But Jo was righteous in her belief that she was meant to pee standing up, and Karel was now taking plump little fists to the jaw every time she tried to seat Jo. They were both frustrated, Noah didn't understand why we weren't happy that Jo was using the toilet, and frankly speaking, I was out of my depth. So three months after the first tree pee, Karel and I decided to back off.
I wish I could tell you that we figured it all out and that there's been a happy resolution, but we're not there yet. Jo is still in diapers, and she continues to try to use the toilet standing up.
I actually take a certain pride in the fact that my little girl loves her brother and daddy so much that she even wants to pee like us, and I'm really not all that worried. Like most kids her age, she's just a little mixed up when it comes to negotiating the intricacies of the bathroom. She'll figure it out when the time is right.
But our story may challenge some of our preconceived notions about raising boys and girls. Every mom who told me that it was easier to potty train a girl than a boy was also the one setting the example and doing the training. My prediction: As more dads take on the role of primary care provider, we'll find out that a lot of our beliefs about parenting are about as accurate as a little girl's idea that she's supposed to pee like a boy.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Parents magazine.