Potty Training Confessions: 9 months down the line

pottyI have not mentioned potty training on here for a long time.

This has a reason.

Like Mummy K, I find that I write the future. Or rather, the inverse of the future. Writing about anything on my blog, especially drawing beautifully tied-up-in-a-bow conclusions about anything, will almost guarantee that it changes the next day. For example, no sooner had I written about my son’s lack of interest in reasons and how he never asked “Why”, or he decided that maybe that was quite interesting after all and now I can’t blink without him wanting to know why I did that.

Potty training has been the same. Back in November of last year, I wrote that he had pretty much cracked it once he discovered you could make numbers and letters with poo. Almost as if he had been reading my blog and was determined not to let me be too smug, he instantly reverted to soiling his underpants and has not really stopped since. Also, having been pretty much dry in the daytime initially, the novelty of going to the toilet soon wore off and he found that these visits to the bathroom were just an annoying distraction from play or TV watching or Doing Numbers, and he started leaving it just a little bit too late. Every. Single. Time.

washing shortsFor months, we have been going through on average 4 pairs of pants a day. On a Shy Poo day (as I call it), when the Boy very slowly releases little bits of poo into his underpants, squeezing them between his bottom for maximum discomfort and mess, this might be more like 6. The washing seems endless. I am forever hanging upside down scooping poo from a little boy’s bottom with toilet paper, then needing to change to wipes to get the really stubborn bits off (sorry, hope you weren’t eating dinner or anything).

“Remember,” I say when he gets impatient, “If you go to the toilet and do your poo there, Mummy only needs to do one wipe. If you poo in your underpants , it will take twenty minutes and half a roll of toilet paper. Your choice.”

Two months ago we hit a crisis point. I was getting increasingly wound up by the situation. I started getting very angry every time he had an accident – or “incident”, as I preferred to think of it, as calling it an “accident” implies that no one is at fault (thanks Hot Fuzz). I started to feel that he was deliberately choosing not to go to the toilet, therefore doing it on purpose, therefore being defiant. And defiance is a bit of a red rag for me.

Toilet trips became more and more stressful for both of us. We would both get very angry. Things were not improving.

Then two things happened:

1) My husband said to me one day after another toilet related confrontation: “He needs to know you are on his side.” Those words stuck in my head: He needs to know I am on his side.

2) I was idly flicking through my old friend Penelope Leach again, and happened on her chapter on potty training. She suggests that for young children their poo is something they can control, and they will often use it to take some control in a situation where they feel powerless.

I put these two things together:

The Boy is most likely choosing not to go to the toilet, as I suspected. He is doing it to exercise control. Why? Because he feels powerless and he doesn’t feel like I am on his side.

This was a sobering thought.

The next day I sat down with the Boy and I told him: “I am really sorry that I keep getting angry with you about going to the toilet. I promise that I will do my very best not to get cross with you. You are a big boy and you can choose when to go to the toilet. I will leave it up to you. It is your choice.”

The Boy gave a very decided nod and said: “Yes,” in a tone that suggested this was what he had been thinking all along and he was pleased I had caught up.

So that is what we did. There weren’t any more or any less accidents, but we were happier.

cleaning productsYesterday I realised that things were actually very gradually improving. The Boy is taking the initiative to go to the toilet more often than he was. The other day, he even went up without making any fuss and did a poo without any prompting or help, and kept his underpants clean. As the Fairy Godmother remarked, his hit-to-miss-ratio seems to be improving. Maybe it’s 2-3 pairs of underpants a day now instead of 4.

Of course today, while I have been writing this post, he has been burning through freshly laundered pants and shorts like there is no tomorrow and even managed to smear poo on the IKEA step, the bathroom floor and the lovely cream carpet on the stairs.

But still I want to record that I am proud of him. That he is making progress, even if it is slow. He is making an effort. He is starting to care more about whether he is wet or dry.

“My pants are clean! Mummy is soooo proud of me!” he beams, sitting on the toilet.

And I really am.

feet

Linking up to Loud ‘n Proud.

Golden days

Who knows what may come in the future, but right now, brother and sister adore each other. Ever since the Baby started sitting up and especially since she has been joining in with mealtimes in the high chair, the Toddler has been seeing her less as a nuisance and more as a potential play mate. He recognises that she is a little person with preferences and even sees a need to speak on her behalf. One day she was crying in the high chair, so I offered her a bit more porridge.

“Maybe not.” the Toddler sniffed.

I gave her some banana.

“Maybe not,” the Toddler said again. “Baby not like-a banana.”

He was right, as it turned out. She was finished and did not like-a more food.

Another morning I went to get him from his room. The baby was already awake and downstairs and unhappy that I had left her. We could hear her crying as we came down the stairs.

“Oh no! Baby crying! Coming Baby! Baby pain?”

“No, I think she is just a bit lonely.”

“Oh, lonely… Poor baby.” By this time we had arrived at where she was sitting in the bouncy chair, making her displeasure known. Her brother went up to her and dropped down to (her) eye level. “Want a cuddle?” He gave her a hug. “There, better. And now: Nummajacks!”

Yesterday they were sitting side by side in the double buggy when the Baby had a bit of a coughing fit. Again, her brother’s concern made my heart melt. He leaned over as far as the straps would let him and said: “Oh, Baby, coughing?” Then he tucked her in under her buggy-blanket and blew her a kiss.

My brother at 3 years old, after I had dressed him up as the Easter Bunny. I thought I'd really done a bang-up job on his face paint.

My brother at 3 years old, after I had dressed him up as the Easter Bunny. I thought I’d done a particularly good job on his face paint.

What seems to have endeared the Baby to him no end is that he has discovered that he can make her laugh. His repertoire of gags includes singing the Problem Blob song from Numberjacks, doing wibbly-wobbly legs (or arms or tummy) with her and making toys fly around her head. Her giggles set him off too and soon he is helpless with laughter. Penelope Leach (again) has a brilliant section on how to help your first child through the arrival of a new baby. I won’t quote it all here, but one of her best pieces of advice is to convince the toddler that the baby likes him – because we all like people who like us. Well, very little massaging of the truth was needed here: the Baby’s beaming smile and shrieks of excitement when she sees the Toddler make it pretty plain how wonderful she thinks he is. But the fact that he can make her giggle has truly cemented their friendship – we like people who like us, but we love them if they think we’re funny. In fact, it is official: the Toddler frequently holds her hand and says “friends!”.

Growing up, my brother and I were always very close, and this is what I hoped for in having a second baby: that my children would have that special built-in friendship, that person who has lived through your childhood with you and can share memories of a happy home with you once you have grown up. Someone, basically, who can both thoroughly embarrass you and make you cry on your wedding day. It is too early to tell, of course, but when I catch the Toddler kneeling down by the Baby, gently taking her head in his hands and placing a kiss on her head, I think at least our two have got off to a good start.

Linking up to Magic Moments.

Time to learn

I love Penelope Leach. I’m going to come right out and say it. My love affair started long ago when I was in my early teens and I found one of her parenting tomes, cracked spine and well-thumbed, on a shelf in my parents’ junk room. Once I’d discovered it, I often snuck in there in unguarded moments (somehow I felt this was an illicit activity) to find out how to bring myself up.

When I was about to become a parent myself, I randomly decided to read everyone but her. I think the memory of the seventies-style cover of the book my parents owned made me think she must be Old and Out of Date. So I read Gina Ford (talk about out of date!) and the Baby Whisperer and Dr Miriam Stoppard. It wasn’t until I was seven months pregnant with baby number 2 that I found “Your Baby & Child” by Penelope Leach (in a very modern-looking binding) in a charity shop for the appealing price of £1, and decided to see what she had to say. I have been dipping in and out of her book every since, mainly reading about toddlers, and everything she says just makes such perfect sense.

Here is something I read in a section on how to join in with toddler play that made me rethink my life:

“Try, sometimes, to arrange unlimited time for [your toddler’s] games. Many toddlers have to nag ceaselessly in order to get a grudging game from an adult and then they spend most of the 10 minutes allotted to them waiting for the dread words: “that’s enough”. You cannot play with him all day but […] do try, sometimes, to seem willing or even eager, to play yourself, and let him have the luxury of going on until he is ready to stop. He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Penelope Leach, 2003, Your Baby & Child, p. 408.)

(The fancy referencing and the elipsis and such are for you, Dad.)

I read this and realised that I am always limiting my playtime with the Toddler. I will play with him for a little bit, but I am always plotting an exit strategy to get back to Important Things like the washing up or Twitter. As an excellent parenting course I attended put it: I am always half-busy. Never with my mind completely on my children, or completely on something else, but always doing both at once and not giving my best, full attention to either. This is not something to beat myself up over, though of course I do, because it is normal. There is not enough time in the day to spend every second completely focused on either the children or the house work or being self-employed, because something will end up not done. You have to multi-task sometimes.

However, I decided that I can, once a day, give the Toddler my unlimited time and attention for something he wants to do, and not stop until he wants to stop. I have tried it with playing his favourite game, Doodlebugs, which is actually very enjoyable. It is no hardship to spend 20 minutes playing Doodlebugs, or playing football, or drawing numbers on the pavement with chalk. And the thing I secretly fear – that he will never ever want to stop – is not true. He does eventually tire and want to do something else. Just not as quickly as I do. But that is okay.

I am not just telling you about all this to show how I am growing as a parent and a human being. There is something in particular that struck me about this passage from Penelope Leach’s book: “He learns by continuous repetition. If ball-rolling is on today’s agenda, he may need to roll a ball for 20 minutes at a time.” (Leach, 2003, p. 408) (for you, Dad) The reason my Toddler – and, it turns out, any toddler – wants to play or do the same thing for hours on end is not because he is obsessed, not because he is a bit boring, but because he is learning. 

A case in point: This weekend, the Toddler was playing in the garden while my husband was cooking on the barbecue – this was a fascinating new phenomenon. To observe it better, the Toddler ran inside to get an apple and installed himself on a garden chair with a good view of Daddy.

“Doing, Daddy?”
“I’m doing the barbecue. What are you doing, S?”
“I’m doing apple.”
[pause for munching]
“Doing, Daddy?”
My husband said they must have had this exact conversation about twenty times in a row. When the apple was gone, our son ran inside, got a pear and carried on where he had left off, except now he was “doing pear”. Daddy, being a good sport, was very happy to keep going for as long as the Toddler wanted to. What was he learning? I imagine he was learning about chatting, about turn-taking, about how you can use the verb ‘to do’ to describe an activity, but primarily about how you ask and answer questions, which is a relatively new feature of the Toddler’s language.

A while back, I wrote about the wonders of self-education. I have been looking on, in awe, as my son has taught himself to count and to recognise letters and their sounds, while I have spent my professional life witnessing British teenagers come out of secondary school unable to spell or do simple maths. The question I asked in that post was: what has gone wrong between the joyful self-education of the pre-school years and the antagonistic reluctance to be educated that you find in schools? Now I ask it again. It would seem that toddlers are built for learning. By instinct, they know what to do. They find something that interests them and they are not quite competent at yet, and they explore, experiment and repeat repeat repeat until they have mastered it. We don’t need to teach them how to learn. They know. In fact, we’re mostly the ones trying to stop them doing it.

So, let’s start the debate once more. What do you think? If we start from scratch and invent school as if it had never existed, what would it look like? How can we use what children are born with to help them learn? Should we have listened to Socrates? Or Montessori? Or just Penelope Leach? Tell me what you think in the comments and let’s re-imagine education!

PS: If you haven’t already, watch this amazing TED-talk by Ken Robinson on the subject.

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh

Learning is taking place: even exciting new moulds could not measure up against the joy of just getting Mummy to make more numbers out of Play-doh