Question: My husband and I are struggling over some potty issues with our 4½-year-old son, and I think we may be losing.
He was trained when he was about 3 — a quick and easy process — but now he wants us to sit in the bathroom with him and tell him stories until he goes. This can take a very long time. That boy could stay there for an hour if we’d let him.
On the one hand, we think, “Well, if that’s how he wants to spend his time, fine,” but that’s not realistic. It’s also frustrating because we now have to prompt him to wipe, to flush and to put on his underwear again, which can turn into a huge and ridiculous battle.
Someone told us that we should use a rewards chart, but we hesitate to offer rewards for something that seems so basic to us. How else can we motivate him to use the potty quickly? And why has our independent little boy become so dependent on us?
Answer: Your son has learned a lesson that you didn’t even know you were teaching him.
You use your money to buy what you want, and he uses his nickels of whine, dimes of despair, quarters of tears and dollars and dollars of dawdle to get what he wants. This is the universal currency that children use to get them what they want most: attention. Ideally it comes from their parents, but if they aren’t around, they’ll try their grandparents, their sibs, their sitters, their day-care teachers or anyone who is willing to give them a hug, a kiss or at least a high five.
You or your husband should of course attend to your child when he’s sick, tired or hurt emotionally or physically. But he really shouldn’t get attention on demand the rest of the time. If you give in whenever he wants, you will inevitably resent it and then you will look cross, which will make him feel rejected, and to make up for that he’ll beg for even more attention.
You can probably put away this tiresome potty game (although it will surely spring up somewhere else).
To do this, you or your husband should talk with your little boy, not when he’s on the potty and you are both upset, but after he’s gone to bed and you’re cozying in the dark. Begin by telling him how much he is loved and then ask him why he’s taking so long to potty these days and whether he acts this way to get attention more than anything else. These questions may seem too sophisticated for a 4-year-old to answer, but not if you talk simply, keep any judgments to yourself and leave a long pause after each question you ask. The younger the child, the more time he needs to come up with the right words.
Once your son has answered you, you can tell him that you’ve been eager to bake some cupcakes with him, but there’s never enough time because you have to hang around the bathroom, waiting for him to go. Therefore, you should whisper into his little ear that you’re going to put Mr. Buzzer — your handy kitchen timer — in the bathroom and set it for 10 minutes. This will give him time to potty and give you time to find the ingredients to make those cupcakes and to plan the story you’re going to tell him after you put them in the oven.
These words should speed him along. If they don’t? You’ll be baking those cupcakes by yourself. Don’t threaten him about that, however; just do it. He’ll hurry if he hears you puttering about, especially if you don’t answer him every time he calls you.
Getting him to wipe, flush, pull up his underpants and wash his hands requires a different approach. To reach these goals, draw pictures of a roll of toilet paper, the flusher handle, a pair of underpants and a faucet and leave it in the bathroom along with a crayon. When your son circles each picture, you’ll know that he has wiped, flushed and pulled up his underpants. And when he has finished singing “Happy Birthday” twice, you’ll know that he has washed his hands long enough and it’s time to give him the attention he deserves. This a fine reward for a 4-year-old because your child wants your attention far more than he wants a few M&M’s.
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Also at washingtonpost.com: Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns.