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Community Q&A: Influencing a Toddler

To help more of our readers with their crucial conversations, accountability discussions, and behavior change challenges, we recently introduced the Community Q&A column! Please share your answers to this reader’s question in the comments below.

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

I just heard Mr. Grenny speak and I couldn’t help but wonder how could I use influence and persuasion to potty train my toddler? We have been working at it from a reward/consequence standpoint but perhaps I am not giving him enough credit. Maybe a simple behavior modifier that doesn’t involve sweet treats (which I refuse to give) or punishment would work?


Pondering Potty Training

17 thoughts on “Community Q&A: Influencing a Toddler”

  1. Figure out what motivates. Is there something the child wants to do but can’t because of diapers/pull ups, like play dates, or the next higher pre-school class? Let him/her EARN the next step by doing what it takes. Nice object lesson for the rest of life!

  2. Similiar to ideas shared by the authors of VitalSmarts, we used a goal setting technique to help train our son to go potty on the potty. He was going to be starting preschool at the end of the summer and the school required him to be potty trained before he could attend. We had on going “toddler-sized” conversations about school. He was motivated to go to school so he could play with the other kids and gentle reminders about this helped to motivate him to potty train. We would first recognize when he had gone 3-4 hours without an accident, then we would recognize him for going 1/2 day,then a day and so on until it was routine that he was not having accidents. When school started we did a big celebration of sorts to reward him for his accomplishment which was really just the icing on the cake.

  3. This may be an opportunity to support chilren’s innate love of learning and as an opportunity at self-mastery. Instead of providing external rewards/punishments what about asking him is he ready to be a “big boy”? And then position yourself as a coach as he learns- you are on his team, helping him with his goal. Lots of praise when he succeeds and a OK, it happens when there are accidents. And maybe a gentle suggestion when he fails- ‘OK maybe next time you can try to go potty before we go out, even if you don’t think you need to right then.”

  4. This isn’t “crucial”-related, but anything you can do that will distract your toddler on the potty will help. We used tiny lollipops, but I understand your desire not to use a sweet treat. Still, a desirable toy that will be distracting for a period of time long enough to get the job done should help. I’m certain there’s a way to align this to the “influence” matrix — something about supporting the toddler’s capability in the area of being patient enough to sit there long enough to use the potty, which is a barrier to “proper performance.”

  5. Part of the crucial conversations tool kit is understanding and acknowledging the other persons perspective or situation. You mentioned reward/consequence is not working. I am only another parent. Not a degreed expert. From conversations with other parents, I see a common parental response is to assume this is a power struggle. I had the opportunity to attend a potty training seminar at my son’s day care. The presenter brought up some key points that might help as you “master your story”. For successful and sustained potty training the child needs to be ready physically and emotionally. Physical readiness refers to the muscle that helps control when bodily fluids and material are released. That muscle control is something that may take longer for some children to develop. Emotional readiness could be related to what is going on in the child’s social development or environment. Is he/she ready to be a “big boy/girl” and use the potty. Are they afraid of the potty (afraid will fall in) or fear the loss of attention they get from a diaper change? Is there a younger sibling in the house that makes them want to hold on to their own baby days? Talking to the child and truly hearing what they have to say might lead you to a win-win solution vs a reward/consequence = win/lose.

  6. I STRONGLY discourage using punishment when potty training. You run the risk of your child hating the potty and stalling progress all together. Punishment makes an already difficult task even more miserable.

    There are many other tactics you can try that aren’t “sweet treats”:
    1. Sticker chart. Little kids love stickers and feel a sense of accomplishment when they complete something and get a sticker.
    2. Potty activities. Your child might be bored at the potty. Try bringing books and small toys like cars and trucks he can play with so he won’t get so bored. Singing songs and reciting rhymes are good options as well.
    3. Healthy treats. You don’t have to offer a “sweet treat” some kids go wild about healthy things like baby carrots or crasins.

    I’ve heard really good things about the “Oh Crap!” Potty Training book. That could work as well. Also, I’m not sure how old your toddler is, but maybe he just needs a little bit more time to be ready. My 27 month old just isn’t ready yet, so I’m not pushing it. He sits on the potty for fun and reads books about going potty, but I’m not forcing the issue.

    Good luck to you!

  7. My daughter was resistent to potty training. In her opinion it was too much trouble to stop and go to the bathroom. In the end we used the motivation of Zoo School and natural consequences.

    She wanted to go to Zoo school but the school only took children who were potty trained. Zoo school provided some motivation, but not enough. We eventually stopped using training pants and switch to regular underwear as by this time she was almost three. She quickly discovered that she did not care to have wet soggy pants clinging to her legs. It only took two accidents and she was trained.

  8. Use natural consequences. You don’t pee your pants because it would be uncomfortable and embarrassing.
    The problem is, kids are not (and shouldn’t be) embarrased and disposable diapers remove the natural wet feeling by being too absorbent. We bought cloth underpants for our kids ( http://www.pottyscotty.com/ I’m sur e there are other brands)
    When they pee it does not fee pleasant. Instant natural consequence. You have a little extra laundry for a week or so and they learn fast. Be sure to get a plastic diaper cover to prevent the learning experience from leaking. 🙂

    The kids reluctance to potty train is natural.
    Remember the story:
    I got out of a nice warm bed into a freezing cold house at 2:00 in the morning to go to the bathroom…..
    Maybe life was better when I used to be a wetter.

    Good luck!

    1. I was also successful with a similar approach. I think that the benefit is that this kind of approach does not cast the parent in the role of manipulator or, once the child figures out that it’s more important to you than him, manipulatee. The child owns the experience and is empowered to change his own experience. The child learns from his own experience, just like life.

  9. I am a mother of 3 and found that for the first, natural consequences just didn’t seem to be effective, but for the next 2, switching to “big girl underwear” worked in about 2 days. Though I also reinforced all the good habits with rewards of stickers and smarties.

  10. My wife and I used an excellent book called “Potty Wise” to help with our three. A couple of main points.

    1. Small rewards (Crackers, M&M’s). I can certainly understand not wanting to use sweets as a reward, but many snacks help to ‘encourage’ the need to go potty.
    2. Reward the right behavior. The focus should be on staying dry. We often did one M&M for staying dry, and another if/when s/he actually went potty.
    3. Modeling behavior is important here as well. A favorite stuffed animal could also be rewarded for staying dry, along with older siblings. Harness the power of others to build motivation

  11. Cannot emphasize enough the physical as well as emotional preparedness for the child. Toddler is a non-specific age category, and does nothing to inform his developmental age. Stickers are a great positive reinforcement, as is big kid “school” or other activities. I see too many parents in a hurry because of day-care and pre-school requirements, or cost of diapers. Check with your pediatrician to be sure your son is physically ready for this. And the use of underwear, if old enough is often but not always just the thing. Children who are so wrapped up in activity that they don’t know or recognize the physical signals will be frustrated if they wet themselves but don’t know why.

  12. There is a difference between toilet training and toilet learning. Training as it was done decades ago required highly attentive adults who read cues and put very young children on potty chairs. Or adults who created the training environment by having children sit either to read or do some other activity until urine or a bowel movement occurred that could be rewarded. As others in the discussion have noted, the shift to toilet learning requires that the child be able to read internal body cues, prioritize them over the play they may be engaged in, have muscular control of the body cues, have motor skills to manage the trek to the bathroom and the mechanics of their clothes…this gives some indication of why the average age for successful toileting is somewhere between 2 1/2 and 4. I know it’s hard to be patient while children grow through this challenge. My best to all of you who are living it. They do learn!

  13. From what I’ve read and heard from psychologists and potty training experts, do NOT use consequences! You don’t want to force them to sit on the potty before they’re ready (you’ll only get more opposition to it), you don’t want to get mad when they have accidents, and you certainly don’t want to punish them for any part of the potty-training process.

    I don’t have a lot of insight other than that — we’re just about to start training our daughter. But, from all that I’ve learned from research, classes, friends and books is to try to make it a positive and fun adventure for them as they become a “big kid.” Good luck!

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