READY OR NOT!
My mother always asserted that all four of her children were out of diapers well before they were a year old. Considering the absence of washers and dryers, indoor plumbing, and disposable diapers, you can understand her determination. Based upon what we now know about how children develop intellectually, physically and emotionally most would be somewhat disapproving of her inappropriate expectations. She was, however, simply conforming to the practical realities and social pressures of her time. Just like we do now when doctors and other experts warn against the emotional damage of “pushing” children and urge us to “wait until they are ready” to give up diapers, pacifiers, and bottles, and to conform to other social expectations.
In spite of my mother’s claims we now recognize that very few children have the cognitive ability or physical capacity to be toilet trained at one year of age. But because of society’s expectations for good mothers, she became adept at training herself to accommodate our natural schedules and to recognize the slightest physical indicators so she could rush us to the toilet and avoid wet diapers. With more modern conveniences early toilet training became less necessary and the experts rightly began to warn us of the emotional consequences of inappropriate expectations. So today’s parents, in an effort to avoid the mistakes of my mother’s generation, wait, and wait for some mysterious sign that their child is ready to magically move to the next level of development. Increasingly, we are seeing children nearing four without being toilet trained, still using a pacifier, taking a bottle, and displaying other inappropriate social behaviors. Parents say, “Oh well, they just aren’t ready yet!” These lowered expectations are no less harmful or inappropriate than were my mother*s.
Sometime around 2 1/2 years of age, most typically developing children are mobile enough to get to the toilet on their own. They have bladders large enough that their diapers are occasionally dry and changes are required only periodically. They can recognize their own physical sensations that indicate that they have or are about to urinate or move their bowels, and can use words to verbalize their bathroom needs to adults. These are the indicators that signal that a child is “ready” to start training. “Ready” does not mean that the process will be easy or totally stress free. Pull-ups have made it increasingly tempting for parents to disregard these signs of readiness and to continue to wait for them to be more “ready”. I have yet to work with a child who wakes up one morning, says, “I’m ready” and never has another accident. As adults we must learn the signs of readiness and accept responsibility to teach and motivate them to move from reflexively urinating whenever physical sensations occur to thinking and planning their actions. If children do not receive this assistance, reflexive behaviors become inappropriate habits and toilet training becomes even more difficult.
This theory of readiness applies to many other aspects of a child’s life. A pacifier is an appropriate way for infants to facilitate reflex sucking. But that reflex lasts only for about 3 – 6 months. Yet when the child spits out the pacifier (indicating, “I am ready to do without it right now!”). Parents, seeking to comfort their child, ignore the sign of readiness and put the pacifier back in the child’s mouth again and again until she gives up and sucks on it. Instead of using it to meet only that short-term reflexive need, children are pressured to form a habit that is difficult to break. Children express an interest in self-feeding, but a bottle is easier, neater, and it puts them to sleep. Parents use lack of readiness to excuse a child’s behavior. “He’s not ready to share yet”.
If we are not careful, the expert’s caution to wait until a child is “ready” can limit that child’s achievements with inappropriately low expectations. Parents must determine what is required physically and intellectually to master each new skill and objectively look at their child’s development. When the child shows the appropriate signs of readiness, it is our responsibility to help them move on regardless of whether we are ready to give up the current comfortable behaviors or not.
This philosophy is important at every stage of development. In addition to determining when to start toilet training, it can help you decide if your child has the skills to be expected to start kindergarten, cross the street, take swimming lessons, drive the car, date, or go away to college. Good parenting is always hard work.