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Pooped from Potty Debate

By Nancy Firor · February 11th, 1999 · Working Parents
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These parents would deny that they'd ever consider appearing on the Jerry Springer Show. But I wouldn't believe them.

From what I've seen, they've been clamoring to tell all to everyone about how they potty trained their children. Perhaps preoccupied with trying to top everyone else, they apparently haven't considered how they're playing right into the pocket-lining tactics of child-care experts like John Rosemond and Dr. T. Berry Brazelton.

Oh, you've heard of them, too? I have tried in earnest to ignore the clamor. But these days, it seems just as hard to avoid media coverage of these experts' war over how to potty train as it is to avoid all of the Clinton/Lewinsky rehash.

Rosemond -- a family psychologist and columnist -- launched the first missile in December with a series of columns published in more than 100 newspapers. In them, he blamed the rise in age at which children are toilet trained on baby boomer parents who have followed the popular potty training advice of Brazelton and others: Don't push toddlers into potty training before they decide they're ready.

Potty training a child, Rosemond contends, isn't much different than training a house pet. But another statement by Rosemond in the Jan. 25 issue of Time magazine is the part that makes my jaw drop: Rosemond thinks that by continuing to change a child's diapers after the age of about 2, a mother fails to give up her role as a caretaker and take up her role as authority figure. This, he says, keeps a child from maturing properly later in life.

In turn, Brazelton -- a pediatrician, syndicated columnist and professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School -- has defended his stance, saying that letting a child decide when he's ready, instead of forcing him, has led to decrease in the national average -- 8 percent to 1 percent -- of problem incidents such as bed-wetting and withholding of stools.

Disputing Brazelton again, Rosemond points to a recent rise in the incidence of potty-related problems.

The rise, Brazelton counters, is the result of a return to forced potty training being used by working parents who don't have time for a leisurely approach and are under pressure because most day-care centers require children to be toilet trained before they advance to classrooms for children ages 3 and up.

The debate has raged across the pages of national magazines and, predictably, has found plenty of space in Cincinnati's own morning daily newspaper.

Being one to cringe when parents such as those who rushed to tell their personal stories when The Enquirer solicited them, I have decided that my 3-year-old has the best response to the whole silly controversy. It's the same thing he says when he goes into the bathroom to use his potty: "I want some privacy."

But a preschooler's right to privacy apparently hasn't crossed some parents' minds. Nor has the idea that their stories have been used for entertainment -- not education -- as they've lined up to take sides with the dueling experts and tell the world why their way is best.

"Every time I see the commercial with Dr. T. Berry Brazelton saying 'let him decide,' I cringe," one mom tells The Enquirer. "Should I also let my son decide what to eat, when to go to bed, where to play, whom to play with, whether he wants to sit in his car seat?"

Gee, I can really see how it follows that if you let your child stay in diapers, you also would let him eat Tootsie Rolls all day and play with drug dealers.

Another mom talks about how her solution was to fill up a basket with candy and presents and give her child one every time she used the potty.

"When her daughter woke up, she put panties on her and told her excitedly that today was the day she was going to start using the potty like a big girl," the article reads. "She told her daughter every time she tinkled in the potty, she would get to open a present."

Do we -- complete strangers -- really need to know this?

Then there's the mom who followed a variation of Rosemond's "naked and $75" technique, which involves using the $75 to have the carpet cleaned after a long weekend of letting a child go in the toilet or go on himself.

This mom's routine went pretty much like: Throw the diapers away, put underwear on, get to the toilet on time or wet yourself. When, after two days, the 2 1/2-year-old hadn't mastered the process, he was told to he would have to change into dry underwear and pants by himself. Remember, Rosemond says, we must give up our role as caretaker and take on our role as authoritative figure. Mommy wasn't changing diapers -- or pants -- anymore. Now, Mommy was the boss.

In contrast, the local lineup also has included tales of other parents who were perfectly satisfied when success took weeks and did not come until their children, as Brazelton promotes, decided it was time.

So what have we learned from all of this story sharing?

I don't have a clue.

Nobody seems to be talking about the other factors that should be coming into play here. I haven't heard anyone mention the child development research that's pretty tough to dispute.

Like how important loving and nurturing acts are in the proper brain development of children, particular from birth to age 3.

And what about research that's been done on how children experience and deal with stress.

"When adults feel stress, they know there's a light at the end of the tunnel and that 'this too shall pass,' " says Bettie Youngs, author of Stress and Your Child: Helping Kids Cope with the Strains and Pressures of Life in the February issue of Working Mother. "For children, things can seem more catastrophic."

Children, according to the article, have their own unique concerns that frequently are tied to their age and stage of development.

What's stressful for preschoolers?

Things like lack of control, separation, new baby sitters and potty training, the article reads. "They don't yet understand cause and effect, and every change feels frighteningly new."

Is there an additional pitfall, I wonder, in pushing boys too early, given other recently publicized research that concluded sons need even more of a mother's love and attention? The research found boys experienced heightened stress and insecurity resulting from pressure to be "big boys" and suppress feelings such as dependence, warmth and empathy, which society sees as feminine.

"Rather than being allowed to explore these emotional states, boys are forced to shut them out," writes William Pollack, a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School in his book Real Boys. "When boys start to break under the strain, they are usually greeted not with empathy but with ridicule, taunts and threats that shame them for not acting in stereotypically 'masculine' ways."

I also haven't heard anyone talking much about the basic coordination involved in learning to use the toilet as well as getting to the toilet in time. It's a big change that common sense dictates might take a few weeks of practice before all accidents cease.

Yet, we have parents proclaiming that their way is best because their children were potty trained -- never to soil themselves again -- in three days.

My biggest question is what is the big competition here?

Is a child psychologically harmed if it takes him six weeks to be fully potty trained?

And why is the child who took three days better off?

Are his parents, God forbid, going to save the newspaper clipping until he and all his friends can read it? Is he going to feel superior because he can tell his friends: "I was potty trained in three days and you took six weeks!"

Or is it his parents who, even though these kids are only 2 to 3 years old, want to compete and feel superior when their kids come in first?

While Brazelton is most visible in the current media onslaught, he is far from alone. Many experts argue that children need to have control in potty training, and the rigid timetables Rosemond advocates in forcing children to use the toilet are more likely to cause physical problems.

Maybe Brazelton is an easy target because he's compromised his objectivity by doing commercials for Pamper's supersize diapers -- something he has defended saying, "I honestly believe in what the company does."

On the flip side, Rosemond has financial incentives that include book sales and the lecture circuit.

Which one is right about potty training?

The answer lies in which method involves love, support and promoting confidence.

We probably should decide which one that is for ourselves.

And aside from sharing the details with friends in an effort to help each other, why don't we all keep it to ourselves, too?

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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