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What Potty Training Taught Me

What Potty Training Taught Me

Why the biggest lesson from potty training was for me, not my son.

Ever since I got pregnant with my first child I’ve been a parenting book junkie. Books on pregnancy, birth, newborns, sleep, child development, baby-led weaning, traditional weaning, toddler behavior, gentle parenting, traditional discipline—you name it, I’ve read it.

My husband rolls his eyes when another Amazon box arrives. “Another parenting book?” he’ll say, before I explain why I need this particular book and how it will change our lives. My friends laugh because whatever the parenting challenge, I’ve usually read a few books about it and can quote them. I can’t solve the particular problem, but boy do I know a few opinions on what we could do. Unfortunately this obsession has yet to turn me into the perfect parent.

So when it came to potty training—one of the most dreaded times in toddlerhood—everyone was expecting me to line up some good reading material.

“What do the books say?” my husband asked whenever the topic came up.

“I don’t know...” I said, for the first time in my parenting life.

Perhaps it was because I’d just had another baby, or perhaps it was because I just wasn’t ready for potty training myself. For the first time I didn’t deal with a parenting question by buying a book. I didn’t know what to do; there were so many books, not to mention blogs, videos, and storybooks for kids—how was I to choose? Why were there so many different methods? Why do people need potty training consultants for something that should be so simple? It was overwhelming. My Amazon cart stayed empty.

RELATED: How to Potty Train Your Child

Then my son turned 2. I half-heartedly read a couple of online articles about potty training readiness. But instead of researching the subject thoroughly I did nothing. I bought a potty seat and showed him how to use it. He got the hang of it but showed zero interest. 

“He’ll do it when he’s ready,” I told my mom. “Eighteen-year-olds don’t wear diapers after all.” So we waited...and waited. I offered to buy him underwear: no interest. I offered a special treat if he potty trained: cue tantrums. I asked him if he wanted to be a big boy and say goodbye to diapers. He said no, he wanted to be a baby and wear diapers forever. 

His third birthday came and went. His friends all potty trained one by one. The other moms discussed different methods and what worked for them. Still he wasn’t interested. I began to despair. I knew that he could do it if he wanted, but he didn’t.  

“What if he’s never ready?” I wept to my husband. “He’s nearly 4!” I shrugged off the disapproving comments in mom forums about the topic of “late” training. I ignored a potty training consultant who told me that kids have to potty train between the ages of 2-3 or face long-term problems. I refused to try and force him, as was suggested by some of these “experts.”

Everyone had a piece of advice to give me. “Read him potty stories,” his preschool teachers said at parent-teacher conferences. We had a dozen.

“Go underwear shopping,” said other moms. We had drawers of unwanted underwear.

I realized that half of my anxiety stemmed from the fact he had always been the first of his friends to hit milestones. Was my competitiveness and anxiety causing his reluctance? He certainly couldn’t care less that he wasn’t potty trained. The mere discussion of it would result in tantrums and tears. So we waited some more. I decided to focus on what he wanted, rather than what he was “supposed” to be doing. 

Then one day, when he was 3 years and 8 months old, I told him casually we were about to run out of diapers. “Okay,” he said. A few days later he came out of his room asking to sit on the potty. I cheered and did a special dance. Two more days passed and instead of peeing on the floor, he said, “I need to go potty” and ran back to the bathroom. Something had shifted. A week later I told him we’d run out of diapers, and within three days he was trained, day and night, with no fuss, and no need for big rewards. I can count the number of accidents he’s had since then on two hands. My gut instinct had been right all along.

When people ask me what method I used I shrug and say, “I didn’t. I just waited until he was ready and he did it.” It took me three years and nine months to realize that the parenting expert who has the most to teach me about my son is my son.

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Emma Steven

Author: Emma Steven is a British freelance writer living in Manhattan with her husband, two small kids, and two cats. Previously the Manhattan calendar editor for, she writes about parenting and New York City. She has written dozens of parenting articles for NYMetroParents, and has also been published on and When asked about what she most misses about the UK she’s most likely to say British humor and least likely to say British weather. See More

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