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Parenting column: Moms too anxious over potty training

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 7:26 am

On one of my websites I, along with a team of certified parent coaches, answer questions submitted by parents. In the last two days, 67 percent of the questions have concerned toilet training. A 3-year-old is afraid of the potty. A 26-month-old will only use the potty independently if he's not wearing clothes. A 23-month-old seems oblivious to mom's expectations. And so on.

In a normal week, anywhere from half to two-thirds of the questions we answer concern potty problems. The question becomes: Why is something that caused parents no significant problems 60-plus years ago causing so many problems today? The answer, in a word: anxiety. Today's parents — moms especially — are anxious about something their great-grandmothers approached in a calm, composed, confident manner. They communicated their composure to their children and their children did what children do when their parents are calm, composed, and confident: They did what their parents expected them to do.

That, by the way, is the secret to effective discipline, no matter the issue. It is not a matter of using correct methods. If the methods in question worked, discipline today would be no more of a problem than it was 60-plus years ago, when it was hardly a problem at all. Effective discipline is all about one's attitude. Time out, 1-2-3 Magic, and all of the other clever discipline methods invented over the past couple of generations are not going to work without the right parental attitude. Furthermore, with the right parental attitude, virtually anything is going to work. Your great-grandmother got great results from nothing more than a stern look.

But back to toilet training. Today's moms bring anxiety to the process. They worry that it won't go well. As a consequence, they do what anxious micromanagers do: they hover. In the course of hovering, they communicate their anxiety to their kids. That means they fail to communicate their expectations clearly, calmly, and firmly. As a result, their kids do what kids do under those circumstances: They either become confused or they push back. In either case, they don't do what they're supposed to do.

This isn't because they're not “ready.” That stuff about “readiness signs” is a bunch of baloney. The problem is not some mismatch between the child and parent expectations. The problem is parent anxiety, pure and simple. Parent anxiety creates a problem that either wouldn't exist otherwise or would be a mere bump in the road.

There is no significant difference between teaching a child to use a spoon and teaching a child to use the potty. Both are self-help skills. Both involve trial-and-error, which means that both involve messes.

Do parents read books about spoon-training? No. Do they worry that their kids might not be ready? No. Do they hover over their kids, trying to prevent them from spilling food all over themselves in the process of trying to get it to their mouths? No. Do they react to mistakes with anxiety, anger, or micromanagement? No.

And for those reasons, and no other, no one has ever, in more than 40 years, asked me a question about spoon-training. 

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers questions at www.johnrosemond.com.