Potty Training Tips: BabyShrink's Hubby Answers a Reader's Question


My Shrink Husband David and I met in grad school, and we’ve been married for 15 years. Go ahead, I know the jokes are coming about how 2 head-shrinker parents raise their kids! But seriously, one of the reasons I married him is because he is such a natural with children. He has an innate sense of when to intervene, and when to let them figure it out themselves. And he’s a “guy’s guy”, which helps me a lot when I’m struggling to understand issues with our boys.

I rely on him both personally and professionally. So I thought you might like to read an occasional post from BabyShrink’s Husband. I asked him to take a “crack” at a Potty Training question:

I have a three-year-old son who will only poop in his diaper, but regularly urinates in the toilet without any problem.  He is aware of his body sensations when he needs to poop, but refuses to use the toilet.  He does not have a medical condition, and is usually quite compliant. What should we do?

Alex in NY

We experienced something very similar with our son. He also refused to poop in the toilet. Instead, he would regularly run to the playroom and quietly hunker down in a mogul ski jump position, eyes forward and red-faced, scrunch up his face, complete his business, breathe, and then, after a moment of bliss -- Mission Accomplished!  We openly discussed the potty with him between the ages of two to three, and the potty fascinated him. While he may have picked up on our enthusiasm about it, he did not verbalize what was on his mind regarding the potty. He always had an inquisitive expression when we flushed the toilet, but refused to speak to his shrink parents about his thoughts.

As psychologists, we had many analytic theories running through our minds. Was he afraid we were flushing his masterpiece, his private creation, or part of his body down the toilet? Was he worried that he himself was going to be flushed down the toilet? Were his shrink parents applying too much pressure? Did he have a dream or thought about losing things in the toilet? And so on.

So how did two highly educated psychologists handle their own son? “We” didn’t exactly handle it; instead, circumstances beyond our control happened one night when our germ and bodily-liquid phobic babysitter came to take care of our children. Our son was not wearing a diaper and started panicking about needing to put one on. Before the babysitter was able to put on the diaper, he started his business on the floor. She carried our screaming and crying son to the toilet where he undoubtedly went ape-sh*t.  He was feeling out of control and proceeded to hose the babysitter with urine while finishing his business on the potty. Upon returning home after our wonderful night out, our son ran up to us and excitedly said, “I made doo-doo in the potty!” He was very proud about his new accomplishment, and no longer afraid. Needless to say, our babysitter was less-than-proud about her evening, but is now a little less liquid and germ phobic thanks to our boy. After that incident, our son has never had problems and has been successfully using the toilet.

The moral of this story? Leave the tough sh*t for the babysitter.


It is interesting though that kids often do things for other caretakers that they seem unable to do for their parents (e.g., you are amazed by your child’s model behavior at school or at someone else’s house when they can be a complete hellion at home). What I realized is that while this wasn’t the way we imagined our son would potty train, I doubt that any serious issues will arise from this experience. This is because we firmly believe that it is the "big picture" that matters. This "incident" happened in the context of months of communication, conveying that he could dictate the pace of potty training.

The most important aspect to convey regarding toilet training is patience. While this “incident” did not convey patience, it was the constant discussions over a year and a half that were fostered by our little one that were most helpful. Pushing a child too hard with this intimate activity can create power struggles between parents and children. Children can feel violated and belittled by all of the pressure placed on them by people and settings. Many boys are not fully potty trained as three-year-olds. If, however, your child is squatting and squeezing in a corner at his frat house, you can certainly start pushing him to use the potty at that point!

But by far, the vast majority of children have a developmental pull that leads them to want to potty train on their own schedule. Additionally, it is also important to contain your own anxiety; remind yourself that your child will potty train when he is ready, and when that happens he will feel good because he will know that it was his accomplishment.

(Thanks to David’s shrink brother Kevin Wittenberg, PhD for helping to edit this post!)