Ten Things I Learned From Potty Training

charlie on dadBy Teddy McGlynn-Wright

I’m trying out this whole blogging thing and one of the things I’ve noticed is that people love their top ten lists.  So here’s my attempt at a top ten with a little potty humor thrown in.

As any new parent knows, there is no end to the length of conversation you can have about a child’s poop, especially an infant. Color, size, consistency, frequency, these are all remarked on regularly.  So I thought I had pretty much had the whole range of poop talk by the time Charlie had hit 18 months.  How wrong I was, potty training opened up a whole new avenue of potty talk, and now we could include the producer of said poop in the conversation.  The other day, while quickly carrying Charlie to the potty from the toy area in the living room, I thought to myself, there’s some lesson here I’m sure.   My pediatrician, my acupuncturist, our midwife, all these folks make the clear connection between pooping and self-care, but it didn’t strike me until I was helping my own child learn to use the potty. So here we go, ten lessons for me on how to better take care of myself that I learned from potty training.

1. Check in with yourself and invite others to check in with you, too.  When Charlie started learning about using the potty we would ask her if she needed to pee or poo at least 2-5 times an hour.  While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this frequency for your own self-care, there are some mindfulness practitioners who would.  The idea is that checking in with yourself (or having others check with you) helps you identify your needs and hopefully find a solution before you make a big mess (see #6).

2. The buddy system – One of the best methods I know for staying true to my own commitments is to have an accountability buddy. For example when I was learning somatics for social justice (a body-based approach to healing trauma) each of us had a buddy that we contacted daily to check whether we were practicing.  It was a simple affair, just a quick, “did you practice today?”  This helped keep each of us focused on our goals, just like how our frequent badgering reminded Charlie that she might want to go to the potty.   It isn’t that she didn’t know that she had to go or even that she didn’t know where the potty was, it’s just that she never had to pay attention to it before since she always just went in her pants.  I think most of us can relate, especially when engaging in/taking on a new self-care practice.  Knowing that someone is going to ask whether I was practicing was enough to motivate me to stick with it on those days when it would’ve been easier just to crap my pants.

3. It all depends on your comparison group (AKA the power of positive peer pressure) – Speaking of buddies, I find it’s helpful to be around other folks who are doing whatever it is you want to be doing, especially when we’re talking about self-care. Charlie is way interested in other folks using the potty, especially when they’re her size.  This is the heart of positive peer pressure; the constructive corollary to ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’  When I’m around folks who are taking care of themselves, it just becomes part of the conversation, the things we’re doing to take care of ourselves (getting outside, clearing out clutter, binge watching house of cards). It works the other way, too I’m afraid. If I’m surrounded by folks, particularly parents, who are martyring themselves – cutting out sleep, friends, and quiet time so they can burn the candle at both ends (and the middle) then that becomes the norm.  Like when I was in college, there was an intense workaholism and I don’t think I ever heard the words self-care.  My thought was that since I only needed about 6 hours of sleep a night, and had at least 15 hours of schoolwork to do I could just move my day from 24 hours to 30 hours. 24 hours awake to do schoolwork, eat, exercise, and socialize, 6 hours to sleep then start all over again.  It worked for about a week before I basically became a zombie.

4. Nature/Nurture cannot be denied. Charlie is most prone to ‘accidents’ when she’s really enjoying what she’s doing.  When she’s cutting up all her little wooden fruits and vegetables or playing at the park it’s hard to tear her away for anything, let alone something as trivial, essential and comparatively boring as a trip to the potty.  But if she doesn’t take a pause, she’ll make a mess in her drawers.  I see folks valorize the shut-in who doesn’t eat or sleep until finishing their magnum opus and there may be times when that’s appropriate, even necessary.  Most of the time though, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how important or enjoyable it is, you’ll do it better if you’ve had enough sleep, have good food in your system, and have had some time outside.  Besides, chances are, it’ll still be there for you to go back to.  I try to explain that to Charlie, her blocks will still be there after we get done with the potty.  If you stay and play, chances are you’ll wind up with a bigger mess that takes more time to address anyway.

5. Start when it’s a seven. To be fair, I actually learned this one when I was a camp counselor teaching kids how to poop in the woods.  Given the amount of time it takes to get to the potty (or find a secluded spot and dig a hole) if you wait until the last minute (i.e. a 10) you’re courting catastrophe.

6. Even at our best, sometimes we make a mess (AKA intention ≠ impact). On Charlie’s first day of learning to use the potty, Annie and I went on a date without her, telling the baby sitter that she was learning to use the potty.  Upon coming home, we heard a hilarious story about her second poop in the potty.  She was playing with her blocks in the living room across the room and around the corner for the bathroom, with our friend taping her doing something cute.  Suddenly, Charlie was at a 10.  The sitter lifted her, ran to the bathroom and pulled down her pull-up to put her on the potty.  Too late.  Her poo fell out of the diaper and onto the floor.  Stepping in it, Charlie was immediately grossed out and wanted it OFF!  So she kicked her feet until the poo, diaper, and her pants flew off. The sitter, remaining calm as Charlie got increasingly worked up reached out to her to hug her and help calm her down, leading Charlie to drop right onto her lap, poo-butt and all. One big mess. I’m not sure what the lesson is here, but this story had me literally rolling on the floor laughing.

7. Celebrate every little thing – No one ever suffered from over-affirmation. This is critical and related to #1 above.  When we started looking at potties (the actually plastic toilet), I was surprised to find ones that cheered and played you a song every time you sat down.  There was even one where you could record a personal affirmation to your child (“Go Charlie! Go Charlie! Go!”). While I try to stay away from too many toys that make noise, this was one that I could get behind.  It made me think about all the little fit bits, smart watches and various other pieces of technology that help us track our progress and affirm our actions (and intentions).  I am not always great at being the affirming one in our house (I grew up in a house where things were just expected) so this is great practice for me.  Every time Charlie got on the potty, she got a little cheer session/dance party or squeaky cheese reward.  I’m wondering what my world would be like if I got that kind of recognition and affirmation for taking care of myself.  “Hey Teddy, way to get outside for an hour today!” high-five!  Or having a SoulTrain dance line waiting for me when I finish my run in the morning.  Or a dollar for every minute I spent meditating?  Now I know that extrinsic motivation is insufficient for sustained change, but I also know that high fives, dance party pauses and end zone celebrations go a long way toward recognition and validation and thus our happiness, self-confidence and optimism.

8. Don’t be afraid to be the baby who cried poop. There are times (especially night/naptimes) when Charlie will start saying that she needs to poop.  When I was a child the magic word was, “please” for Charlie it’s “poop.”  Should I ignore her when I don’t think it’s true? No, Because let’s be honest, who wants to be the parent of the boy who cried wolf too many times and got eaten because their parents ignored them? I mean that guilt would be crushing, I would literally rather be eaten by a  . . . nevermind. Anyway, when Charlie is in her crib and shouts, “I need to poop in the potty,” one of us dutifully goes up, takes her out of her crib, and plops her on the pot. If we want her to listen to her body’s signals, we’ve got to model that we’ll listen to her.  For her, sometimes it takes the lack of stimulation of a dark room for her to relax enough to notice that she needs to poop.  My body does the same thing.  Sometimes I need to be relaxing in a bath, or not thinking about the thousand things I need to get to next to realize that my shoulders are way up near my ears and I haven’t taken a full breath all day.  There are a million ways that my body communicates what it needs to me when I’m available to listen.  When I wake up with a sniffle, or soreness, or still tired, or whatever else, it’s easy to ignore it.  And in a parenting partnership I don’t want to be a burden so I’m even more likely to ignore my internal wolf-cries.  This is a mistake, we need to listen to our bodies and call “poop!”

9. Laugh. Seriously, poop is funny and laughing is good for your health.

10. Take time to breathe – sitting on the john is like playing hookey, it’s the most personal of time. We have a stack of magazines & a fartbook in the bathroom and frankly it’s about privacy. In the life of a human, particularly raising another human who has as much energy as my daughter, taking a little downtime is incredibly helpful.  Go to the potty.  Take a breath.  Take a break and ignore the folks telling you to poo or get off the pot.

Phew, made it.  So there they are, 10 things I learned about how to better take care of myself through helping my child poop in a fancy plastic bucket instead of her underpants.

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