Valley Parents: The Exploits of a Potty Trainer
Canaan — There was something my wife and I had been ignoring lately, but I could see when she entered the room that the time had come.
She perched one foot on the coffee table and leaned over her knee, like a football coach to his players at halftime.
“Do you want to strategize,” she said. The punctuation is intentional, as this was not so much a question as a declarative statement.
Potty training. It was the messy challenge we — but mostly I — would be stewarding our son, Sam, through in the coming week. I’d planned a “staycation” and would be with him through it all. The potty was prepped, the bulk packages of underwear purchased. We even had a sticker chart to track progress and encourage him. With luck, he’d be peeing on his own by the end of the week.
But before then, there would be accidents aplenty, lots of running to the bathroom, crying, confusion and failures to communicate. Frustration on my part was inevitable, though expressing it not an option. I was there to be his cheerleader.
There are all sorts of theories about potty training. We found a middle ground between the sink-or-swim, rip the pants off approach, and something more gradual. The first couple of days would be pants-less and we’d introduce underwear later in the week. Diapers were allowed at night and during nap times to start.
One thing I didn’t anticipate is just how homebound we would be. Travel during the first couple of days was nearly impossible. I’ve never seen a “must wear pants” sign while shopping, but I’m pretty sure it’s implied most places. The gorgeous late-September weather came to our aid, however, allowing me and my half-naked toddler to hang outside without fear of public scorn.
If you can do the potty training thing during nice weather, it goes a whole lot smoother. The child is active and happy, and should an accident happen, there’s easy cleanup. We’d leave the door open and run in and out. By the second day, Sam was running inside on his own. He had the hang of it real quick and I naively thought, why do people make a big deal about this?
Well, because underpants are a whole other matter.
We told him to “listen to his body,” but it seemed more difficult for him when wearing underpants. After the first morning, it was clear we’d pushed him too fast. So we introduced an intermediate step: He went commando.
This is the sans-skivvies style sported by lazy college boys and gross uncles everywhere, but it was helpful with Sam. I realized that, with underpants, we weren’t just introducing one new step, we were introducing two — getting used to the sensation of wearing them, while also having to learn how to pull down his own drawers.
At 29 months old, Sam had never done this — not in a pressure situation, anyway. The kid would occasionally surprise us by pulling off socks, shirts or whatever, but that was all fun and games. This was serious. A rite of passage. A test. He knew it, and thus wetting himself was more than an accident. It was failure.
Which is why I had to be really careful about my reactions. This stuff was hard for him, and by mid-week, whatever early confidence he’d built had turned to doubt. It was my job to keep this thing going. I put aside any negative reactions to cleaning up wet clothes every half-hour, and was as cheerful as I could be. At times, I was as upbeat as an aerobics instructor on speed.
Cheering might seem corny to some people, but this was Sam’s incentive. He craved approval for everything — telling me he had to go, cleaning out the potty, washing his hands. I clapped and congratulated him on it all. He deserved it.
Though he made a lot of progress, I realized after five days that our work had just begun. Even now, months later, potty training remains a work in progress. He’s definitely trained, but we still go into the bathroom with Sam to help and he also wears diapers at night.
Still, at the end of the week, I wanted there to be something more, some reward for what was a major interruption in both of our lives.
I decided that he and I would go out for pizza at lunch and then attend a Dartmouth College football game, where he could run around on the track and scream his head off in public without fear of reprisal.
It was also a test-run. This little sojourn, if we saw it to its end, would last at least 3 hours. That’s a long time and he’d have to get used to an unfamiliar bathroom. So, I packed a bag full of many changes of clothes, a couple of snacks and a toilet seat adapter, and headed out to see just how we’d do.
And I do mean “we.” This potty training thing wasn’t just all on him. It’s a team effort. I had to learn his cues just as much as he had to develop them. I had to show him how to do this stuff, sacrificing a bit of privacy, perhaps, but vital to get Sam where we both wanted him to be.
Given all the noise and chaos surrounding him at the game, I was a bit concerned we’d leapt too far. He was having a good time, but I wondered whether he’d be too distracted to “listen to his body.”
Fortunately, he wasn’t. I’d been asking him throughout the game if he needed to go and he answered, sometimes forcefully, “No.” This was going to be his call.
Around the middle of the third quarter, with Dartmouth two touchdowns behind and the modest crowd quieted and in a somber mood, Sam told me he had to go.
We ran towards the home-side stands and rounded a corner into the men’s bathroom.
The concrete and steel of a stadium bathroom is not the most reassuring environment, and the facilities at Memorial Field were no exception. It was lit in a steely gray, like a Steven Soderberg movie, and smelled of stale cigarettes. Silent men passed in and out, monk-like, disappearing behind rows of doors. Sam had this skeptical look, registering curiosity and, perhaps, a bit of concern, about what was going on inside.
But he was committed and took a step forward. I ushered him into a stall, fumbling into my backpack to remove the training seat while also keeping Sam from touching anything. He was transfixed by the pair of ankles beside us and bent down to get a closer look. I had to work quickly to save us some major embarrassment.
Eventually, Sam got situated on the seat and waited. And waited. Then waited some more. Finally, he looked up at me. Then, his mouth pulled into a grin. Success.
And, from the cavernous bathroom beneath the stadium stands came the loudest cheer heard that afternoon, bellowed by a proud little man.