Recently, our friends asked for advice as they became adoptive parents of a 3 year-old. MrH wrote:
“the part that I think is relevant is that Middle One and Eldest both have the ability to work through situations and figure out how it works for them. They don’t have all the words, and they process it differently- Eldest is clingy/whiney and sucks on her finger as she thinks, and Middle One spends time (Saturday it was 3 hours) by himself shooing away everyone that tried to talk to him. But they both figure out what will work for them, and the adults (although it sometimes can take a while!) also figure it out. Given that most adults are not used to these situations, it’s hard to find the right words to try to help the kids verbalize what they are thinking. But, eventually, we get there. Every time. Even if it takes hours or days or weeks, we get there. And the kids totally appreciate that we keep trying to figure it out and give us a long leash on it, as long as we keep working at it.”
I was reminded of this as our Middle One FINALLY responded to a potty-learning system. The kid is 4.5 so we have tried just about everything. We do believe, for various reasons, that he was not trained in a kind way when he was two and non-verbal, so mostly we’ve tried to be extremely low-key about the whole thing and to continually trust him to know when he’d be ready. As his language has exploded this summer we continued conversing with him about the topic and he maintained his stance that he’d do it when he was ready. This weekend was to be the “no diaper no matter what” weekend. We’ve tried that before but only for a day before calling the entire experiment a failure. He has always adamantly refused to even sit on the potty, and while he did get 12 stickers on a chart once towards earning an automated train, he gave up after the 12th and decided he’d just get that train when he was bigger.
Friday afternoon was to be the start of no-diaper weekend. We’d decided that our decision was about the diaper and about where he could and could not be without a diaper (no carpeted rooms!). His decision would be whether or not to sit on the potty. We were prepared to clean up stinky pee from our floors for 3.5 days. On Thursday night I read a book at the bookstore. I forget the title (unfortunately) but it was a very behaviorist approach towards parenting and, according to the author, a scientifically proven way of getting kids to do what you want them to. While that is NOT my general parenting approach, I was interested. With the help of the book, we decided on the following “fun game”/reward system:
- we have all these coins (leftover pirate booty from a scavenger hunt. He calls them pennies) here. After any meal or snack, I’ll say “Middle One, time to try the potty.” When you go and sit on it, you get a penny . If you pee or poop in the potty, you get two pennies.
- we also have prizes. You can trade your pennies for prizes. See? This is one penny. These are two pennies. (we also showed him the 4-penny prizes and have now instituted some that are 6 pennies, since he’s doing so WELL!!)
- let’s practice it right now (practice the whole sequence, including giving a coin and redeeming for a prize if he wishes. Talk him through every single step and super-praise (be enthusiastic, specific, and immediate). “great job, you’re walking over to the potty. Alright, now you’re sitting already. Great job. Shall we read a book or play with …? Excellent, you sat the whole time! You earned your penny already, good work Middle One!”
- If he doesn’t choose to do any part of it, can give one reminder, and after that say “this time you didn’t earn a penny, but maybe next time you will again, and you can trade it for prizes.” Make it a non-event though. He doesn’t have to sit. The only “have to” is no diapers.
- Lastly, add that “once we’ve given you all of our pennies this baggie will be all empty and you will get your automatic train.”
Well. He loves it. Really. He sits, he pees, he gets his coins and buys his prizes. Yesterday he came running up to me “mama, I have to poop!” And the kid did, in the potty. My heart swelled. I’ll admit that he almost always elects the candy prizes, which we’ve started rationing. At the start of the day I refill the prize-box. There are plenty of prizes but not enough candy to be eating it all day long. Other prizes are a pencil, bouncy ball, magnifying glass, and things such as that. I’ve read about making “read a book for 10 minutes” be a prize but that seems to be beyond his ability to grasp. The first two days we had no accidents, yesterday was rough, and today only one accident. He already ran out the battery on the automatic train he earned Saturday night, and is now working towards the mine bridge, which he chose himself at the store. We’re slowly upping the stakes (no more 2-penny candies, and instead of having to earn all 24 pennies there are now 36 pennies) and he continues to do well.
There are no words to describe my relief, elation, and pride at my boy’s abilities and choice-making. I’m so thankful to find ways to parent that honor my child, and to provide him with the time he needs to come to his own choices. And while this reward system is certainly a big piece of his willingness, it’s him who’s choosing to sit, and it’s him who’s choosing to release. Things we have been struggling with for years, “but eventually, we get there. Every time.”