Twenty-four hour potty people
Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 5, 2016.
Toilet Training in Less Than a Day is a slim little book originally published in 1974 by the child psychologists Nathan H. Azrin and Richard M. Foxx. I picked up a copy a year ago, after realizing that I was long overdue in potty training my daughter, who had just turned three. Until then, my wife and I had somehow hoped that the problem would solve itself: we bought a Baby Bjorn toilet trainer seat, and after Beatrix took an interest in it, we allowed ourselves to think that she might even teach herself on her own. That didn’t happen, of course—after an initial burst of activity, the seat just gathered dust for a year, and as the days continued to pass, I figured that I might as well do it for once and for all. Her winter break from playschool, which happened to coincide with a slow period in my writing, presented an obvious opportunity. And I was drawn to the book by Azrin and Foxx primarily because of the promise conveyed in its title: given enough advance preparation on the parent’s part, toilet training could be over in a day or two of focused work, rather than conducted at a lower level of intensity over a period of weeks. (I don’t intend to go into the method in detail, and you really do need to read the text in its entirety, but you can find a summary of the approach here.) But as I studied the book and gathered the necessary equipment, my wife cautioned me against having unrealistic expectations: “If it were really possible to toilet train in a day,” she said, “potty training wouldn’t be such a thing.”
At this point in the story, you’d expect some kind of a twist: I’d tell you that the training didn’t work at all, or that there were shortcomings in the method that weren’t evident from a cursory reading. But it worked just great, with a few caveats that I’ll discuss in a moment. The title is a bit misleading: the training itself took about a day and a half, but it was preceded by three nights in which I read the book twice from cover to cover, took notes, and did my best to memorize the instructions. What it proposes, in effect, is a kind of four-hour seminar on the subject of potty training: you sit your child down in the kitchen or some other room with an easily washable floor and minimal distractions, and you essentially conduct a motivational talk, a la Tony Robbins, about the benefits of the toilet, complete with rehearsals and demonstrations. It requires a doll that wets, which was surprisingly hard to find, and a potty that provides feedback when the child successfully does her business. (The one that I ended up purchasing plays a merry tune and says: “Yay!”) You use the doll to demonstrate the process a few times, including a dramatization of what happens when she wets her pants, and then proceed to a series of practice runs, with dryness checks conducted every five minutes and potty trials every quarter of an hour. A supply of snacks, drinks, and other rewards is kept on hand, along with a “friends who care” list to remind her that her grandparents, friends, and Santa Claus are all proud of her. And you’re supposed to talk about nothing else but the potty for however long it takes.
The result, within twenty-four hours, was that my daughter was able to run to the potty by herself whenever she needed to go, lower her pants, relieve herself, wipe, put the tissue in the adjacent toilet, raise her pants, empty out the pot, flush, and even use the closed potty seat as a stool to wash her hands in the sink. Azrin and Foxx aim to have the entire process be totally autonomous, so that you aren’t even aware that your child is using the potty until you hear the flushing sound from the next room. We’ve had a few accidents, and keeping dry overnight is a challenge we’re still saving for another day, but a year later, I have no complaints. And reports from other parents mostly seem to verify this. When you look at reviews of the book online, which are overwhelmingly positive, you find that they fall into two categories. If it worked for your child, the book is great; if it didn’t, it needs to be taken out of print. And it’s easy to overlook the fact that a lot of luck seems to be involved in either case. (There’s also a touch of negative reinforcement that might make some parents, including me, a little uncomfortable: when your child has an accident, you’re supposed to say “No!” in a firm voice, and then conduct ten rapid practice runs before having her change her pants and clean up her mess. Beatrix sure didn’t like it, but it seemed to work.) I also have a feeling that it was the extended amount of time that we spent together, rather than any specific drills, that made the difference: the pants inspections and practices are useful in themselves, but they’re even more valuable as a way to structure the hours upon hours of attention that the approach requires.
And I ended up reflecting a lot about the tradeoffs involved. Yesterday, while talking about baking bread using the no-knead method, I pointed out the inverse relationship between time and intensity in everything we do: you can make up for one by ramping up the other, and the results are much the same whether you engage in intense effort for a short stretch of time or less focused work for a longer period. In my case, I decided that I preferred one day of concentrated training, rather than drawing the process out over weeks, but the amount of energy that I expended ended up being pretty much equivalent. There were also small, unpredictable externalities that arose with the accelerated approach: Beatrix became restless at night, apparently because she was worried about wetting her pull-ups, and I ended up spending a lot of extra time trying to figure out what she needed. There’s no free lunch, in other words: the universe of potty training is basically an efficient market, and what you gain in saved time with the Azrin and Foxx method you pay for in other ways, as a kind of karmic compensation. That’s true of anything in life, but it’s particularly true of parenting: anything that looks like a shortcut probably isn’t, when you take the larger picture into account. I’m proud of my daughter and myself for having gotten through the process so quickly, but it isn’t for everyone, and it probably isn’t an accident that most parents choose a less intensive approach. You think that you’re training your child to use the potty, but when you’re done, you find that you’ve also been quietly training yourself.