When it comes to figuring out this parenting stuff, I draw heavily upon my six years of experience as a preschool teacher. Taking care of 9-12 toddlers for 8-9 hours a day is not just exhausting--it is also highly instructive. Most of the children who have been in my care over the years have been between the ages of two and three. This period is a critical one in early development, when the baby gives way to the child and the unique personality emerges. It is also a time when lifelong hangups can be formed.
Using the potty can easily become one of those hangups. Toddlerhood is when kids realize that they have some control over their lives, in particular their bodies. This is the age when they figure out that they don't have to eat anything they don't want to, they don't have to fall asleep if they would rather stay awake, and that they can pee and poo whenever and wherever they choose. Parents who refuse to respect this autonomy are in for a bumpy ride, as they are continually reminded of the limits of their own power over their little ones. Ultimately, the child must decide for him or herself that the potty is the appropriate place to do one's business.
It is not my intention to patent my own "method" or to promise success if my advice is followed to the letter. Instead, I'd like to use my experience to help others navigate the tricky waters of potty training by providing a set of guidelines I developed over the years. I encourage parents to experiment with the guidelines they like, ignore the ones they don't, and to add their own suggestions and stories in the comments section. So, without further adieu, here is the Sane Mom approach to potty training.
Guideline #1: Start when the child is ready.
I prefer to wait until the child can have a conversation, usually between the ages of two and three. Sure, you can plunk a pre-verbal child onto the potty seat and maybe he or she will learn to poo or tinkle on command, but potty training is about more than just getting rid of diapers. It's also about learning the valuable life-skill of being responsible for one's own waste. It is impossible to get this concept across to a child when he or she doesn't know what the hell you're saying.
Guideline #2: Use equipment you are comfortable with.
This can either be a standalone potty or a small padded seat that fits over the adult toilet seat. Personally, I prefer the latter--nothing makes me gag harder than the sight of urine-soaked shit in a plastic container (until I tip it over the potty and hear the mess plopping into the water, that is). The upside of the former design is that your child may feel more comfortable being closer to the floor, and may also be more likely to use the potty if it's located in a play area close to the toys. As for me, I never conquered my gag reflex when it comes to runny, smelly human waste, so we'll be sticking with the flushing toilet.
Guideline #3: Be cool.
It's tempting to make a big deal out of beginning potty training and either start cheerleading (You're such a big kid now! You'll never use diapers again!) or castigating (You can't start preschool or play with big kids until you learn to use the potty!) your child. But the truth is, the more pressure you put on the kid, positive or negative, the more hangups he or she will develop. Why? Because being relaxed is a key ingredient to being able to "go". Think about how hard it is to take a dump in a public restroom, or even at home if people are standing outside the door impatiently awaiting their turn. Using the bathroom is not something that requires audience participation. Just stand by and stay calm.
This doesn't mean you can't bring it up. When I was supervising children on the playground, I would often point out (conversationally) that the big kids wore underwear instead of diapers and went inside to use the potty. Little kids are fascinated by what big kids do and they expect that, in time, they will do the same things. Another good idea is to keep potty books mixed in with the "fun" books. Seeing potty-related imagery on a regular basis can help demystify the process and can reinforce the idea that it's not such a big deal.
Guideline #4: Be consistent.
Taking care of a group of children would be impossible without a strict schedule. This is especially true in a preschool setting, where many groups have to share limited space and resources. I find that the habit of scheduling has carried over into my parenting, as well. While my home schedule is not as strict as my classroom one was, my boy's day is still structured by specific things (like meals and naps) happening at specific times. I plan on making potty training just another part of the day. His mind and body trained to eat, sleep, and play at certain times; now he can learn to poop when it's time.
This may sound rigidly authoritarian, but think about it. When do you go number two? If you have a steady job, chances are you feel the urge at roughly the same time each day, usually correlated with your pre-work ritual or around your break time. This is because your body "knows" when the time is optimal for it to go. Deviations from this schedule often result in embarrassment or dismay. This same biological time-keeping process is at work in children; we just have to wind the clock.
Guideline #5: You don't ask. You tell.
The quickest way to derail the process is to ask your child if he or she wants to use the potty. 95% of the time, the answer will be a resounding No. Kids love having the freedom to opt out, and given half a chance, they will abuse that power. Even if it means shitting their pants.
Instead, just say, "It's time to sit on the potty." That way, it isn't you making the kid do something; it's time. Potty time is like meal time, bath time, and bed time; it's just something that happens. This is where having a schedule really helps--instead of having to interrupt play or a meal to whisk a child to the potty, it can be an "in-between" activity (for example, between nap and snack).
In addition to these set times, toddlers should be brought to the potty any time they ask to use it.
Guideline #6: Have realistic expectations.
There's a reason I say, "It's time to sit on the potty," instead of, "It's time to use the potty." As I explained earlier, kids don't have to go poop and pee just because their caregivers want them to. Each time they sit on the potty, they choose whether they will go or not (unless their bladders are bursting). If we want potty training to succeed, we have to respect this choice.
When I started training a particular group of children, I only expected them to be able to sit on the potty for one minute (having a digital clock in the bathroom helps--kids love watching the numbers count down). If they achieved this goal, I said, "Good job." and went on to the next kid. That minute was enough time to get the first child's hands washed and get him or her seated with a snack before moving on. People looking into my classroom were often amazed at how efficiently I managed to get through such a difficult task, but the truth is, low expectations yielded high results.
As the kids got more comfortable on the potty, I would increase the number of times per day and the amount of time spent. Sooner or later, I would hear the glorious sound of water tinkling on porcelain, and I would return to the bathroom to find a ecstatic, proud child.
Guideline #7: Rewards work; bribery fails.
I kept a bag of gummy bears in my up-high, off-limits teacher cabinet. I never mentioned them, but all the kids knew they were there. They also knew that peeing in the potty was worth one gummy bear, and that pooping was worth two. So, not only did they get lots of praise from me (often in the presence of their parents, an added bonus), but they also received a small bit of sweetness to enhance the memory. This positive association, reinforced over time, led the kids to look forward to the opportunity to use the potty and earn their reward.
However, this is probably the trickiest guideline to follow without letting it spiral out of control. Firstly, it's tempting to trot out the candy beforehand to use as incentive. Bad idea. You're essentially offering to pay the child for something he or she should be expected to do regardless. Kids are shrewd little manipulators, and once they realize their poop and pee is worth something to you, they want to negotiate the best possible deal for themselves (such as: full-size Snickers, up front, then we'll see what happens). The other problem is knowing when to cut the treats off. In my preschool classes, this wasn't a problem: the kids moved on to another teacher, who may or may not offer potty rewards. Problem solved. But deciding when to stop rewarding my son with sweets will be more challenging, and there will probably be conflict involved.
Also, if you feel strongly one way or another about sugar (meaning you either avoid it like poison or constantly pacify your child with candy) then this option is off the table.
Guideline #8: Buy lots of undies and be ready to throw them away.
Over time, the diaper will stay drier longer and successful potty times will become the norm. I recommend waiting to switch to undies until this point, mostly because cleaning up accidents sucks (especially when you suspect it was no "accident"), but also because I don't own enough clothing to change my son's entire outfit several times a day. Your child will still occasionally have accidents, but they will be fewer and farther between depending on how comfortable he or she is on the potty. It helps to get the child involved in the cleaning up, both because it deters future accidents and because it reinforces the idea of taking responsibility for one's own messes.
Sometimes the messes will be horrifying--even a well-trained child is no match for the sudden onslaught of diarrhea. This is why cheap underwear is your friend. If you can't bear the thought of your child's cherished undies getting thrown away, it's probably best not to use them to cover his or her butt. Hang them on the wall or something, if they're so important.
This is neither a quick-fix nor a one-size-fits-all approach. Following these guidelines takes time, commitment, and patience. But it worked for me with dozens of other people's children, and it's the approach I intend to take with my own.