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It's up to parents to keep achievement race from going down the toilet

Tuesday, February 1, 2011; B06

Every year, Maria Zimmitti fields the panicked calls as summer winds down and the school year looms.

Parents leave frantic messages on her cellphone. They bombard the D.C. child psychologist with e-mails. They need her - NOW!

What's the Bat Signal for? Pee. But more likely, poop.

Zimmitti is one of the area's premier potty trainers. And each year she sees a bigger frenzy among parents frantic to potty train their children - fast.

"There are real deadlines," she said, "and the parents are just filled with extreme anxiety."

Maybe that's why the plight of Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso has generated such heated debate. Rosso used every trick on the Internet to try to potty train her 3-year-old to satisfy the requirements of the excellent Arlington public schools Montessori Preschool at Claremont Elementary the girl was lucky enough to get into.

But the school said the 3-year-old was having too many accidents and suspended her - an outcome that some decried and others cheered.

Potty training has always been a polarizing topic.

You've got the old-school folks, who took diapers off 1-year-olds and scrambled along behind them with portable potties in a Tiger Mom, carpet-staining endeavor.

There are the nouveau old-schoolers who hold their bobble-headed infants over the toilet every time it looks like they're about to go. Thus, training the parents.

And there's the let-the-child-be-the-guide camp that fuels a multi-billion dollar disposable diaper industry, which makes nappies big enough for first-graders.

Most parents are probably somewhere in between, urging kids along with toy incentives or sticker rewards, hoping to get them out of diapers soon but not freaking out if it takes awhile.

But for some, potty training is taking on the gravitas of SAT scores because these days, excrement and academic trajectory have become inexorably intertwined.

To get into some of the area's most desirable preschools, young scholars have to be in control of their bowels.

"Why, yes, of course Langdon is potty-trained. He was dry last autumn, just about the time he began his piano lessons and finished with his nonprofit work," the parents promise.

The only problem is that come August, young Langdon may be cool with aiming his firehose at the target-practice Cheerios floating in the toilet bowl or filling his sticker chart with more stars than a Van Gogh, but he may not be disturbed yet by the delightfully warm, squishy product in the back of his Pull-Up.

And thus the calls to Zimmitti for help come back-to-school time.

"Usually, it's the poop part that's more difficult," said Zimmitti, who added that she is often able to teach the reluctant to embrace their potties in one or two sessions, much to the relief of their striver parents.

The years before kindergarten are no longer a time to chase worms in the garden while Mom watches soaps and smokes her Virginia Slims. Nor are they days to be wasted eating paste and picking your friend's nose in day care.

No, life is different for this generation. As universal pre-K nearly becomes the standard across the country and pre-schools talk more about their academic philosophy than their playground, parents are trying to get their kids into the right programs to help nurture all those fertile synapses developing in their brain.

And that means that traditional day care, which has been around since Rosie was riveting, is being left in the dust for programs that have more academic heft once a kid hits 3.

And scholarly achievement and a load in your shorts don't go together, apparently, because unlike traditional day cares, most high-octane preschools require a student be potty-trained.

So here is where the debate gets particularly icky. There are folks who want to go back to the good old days - the 1950s - when 90 percent of kids were toilet-trained by 18 months.

Today, that's less than 5 percent. Are we just lazier and more indulgent today?

"I think it's about our lifestyle, things are just different today," Zimmitti told me when I asked her about the change.

Those 1950s moms got tired of washing all those diapers, and most of them were home with the kids all day to potty-train them. Today, most families have both parents working, and disposable diapers are so high-tech that babies have a hard time knowing they're even wet.

The right age to train is about 2 or 3, Zimmitti said. But it's not abnormal to still be a little leaky then.

"If your 4-year-old's not potty-trained, it's time to push it," she said. But if your 3-year-old is not meeting the deadline of a school that the parents have their heart set on, it's really time to rethink a square pegs approach to parenting.

And that's what Rosso eventually did. She moved her child to another school, where she has been accident-free and happy.

That's the take-away here. There is no cookie-cutter approach for anything child-related.

Whether it's pushing science on a dreamy poet or music on a tone-deaf athlete, society is littered with the rubble of childhoods mangled by parental ambition.

Schools can set their standards and enforce their rules. But really, it's up to parents to keep the ever-escalating achievement race from going down the toilet.

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