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Child looking up from the potty

Potty Training Wars: Motivating the Unmotivated Kid

By Amalah

Hi, I have a stubborn 2-year-old. She’s almost 3 and she fits all the potty readiness signs. We did a 3-4 day bootcamp, set timers, took away diapers, went naked, did underwear, gave incentives, danced, sang, praised, sticker charted, and we’ve made progress. But it’s taken a while and we’re not there.

It’s partially because she has to use diapers at daycare until she’s totally potty-trained. It’s partially because she doesn’t care if she sits in pee, or poop and when we tell her to let us know when she has to go, and we set timers, she tinkles whenever she wants. Incentives? Toys, candy, etc. She wants to go potty every five minutes to get another toy. She’ll sit there and then scream at us when we try to get her off the potty. She’ll sit there until she lets out the tiniest little tinkle and then she’ll say, “I get prize now!”

I’m getting rid of diapers again, and telling her she has to stay dry for a whole day to get a prize, and doing a potty dance when she goes, but I feel she isn’t motivated enough still. It’s maddening. I would appreciate any thoughts as I liked your articles on potty training, and responses to other people who have similar problems to ours. Thank you.


Unfortunately there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the motivation piece of potty training. Every kid is motivated by something different, and it can take an awful lot of trial-and-error before you hit on what will motivate your particular toddler. For some kids, it’s peer pressure or a hatred of wet/dirty clothing, or an innate desire to be a “big kid” (which hahahaaaa was none of mine, ever). Other kids, yeah, need some kind of incentive/prize/reward. And while every potty training column on earth mentions sticker charts and M&Ms, I’ve yet to meet a parent who successfully and fully potty-trained (pee AND poop) with the power of stickers and M&Ms alone. That goes double for the super-stubborn types, like your daughter and all three of my sons.

As I’ve written before, sometimes you just gotta keep upping the incentive ante…while also upping the expectations on what your toddler needs to do in order to get that incentive (i.e. no more prizes for every potty break and tiny tinkles past). Go to the toy store and select a Big Prize she really, REALLY wants, but tell her she has to stay clean and dry for like, three to five days in a row. Or even longer, if you’re confident she really has the skills and is genuinely just choosing to not use them. Set up a chart for that timeframe to track her progress. I preferred a magnet chart, since it was easier to take away the day’s star/smiley face/whatever when they had a setback.

I had one child out of three who was motivated by the negative consequence of being wet. For the other two, yeah, I had to create the negative consequence myself. For one, he really liked buttons. (Like, spare buttons from my sewing kit. He loved all the different shapes and colors. Okay, toddler!) So he got a button every time he used the potty. We kept them in a special little bag he could carry around. But I took away a button every time he had an accident. It was frustrating enough for him to work on not losing buttons, but low-stakes enough to not be genuinely upsetting/distressing. (This worked for pee, by the way. And pee only. We had to find a whole other incentive for number two.)

For the other, we bought a prize from the toy store — some random thing he just really, REALLY wanted — and stuck in on top of a kitchen cabinet where he could see it on a regular basis but not play with it. I set up a daily magnet chart and told him he had to go three days in a row (or something like that…I’m getting fuzzy on details as potty training trails further and further behind us) to get that toy. Day one, he was motivated and did great. Day two, same. Day three…meh, he figured the toy was a sure thing and didn’t try quite so hard. So I took away the star magnets and sent him back to day one. He was LIVID. INCENSED. HE DID NOT KNOW THAT WAS A THING THAT COULD HAPPEN.

He trained within the week.

So this is a really long-winded way of saying: Keep trying. Create the motivation however you can. Try some (VERY GENTLE) negative consequences, be it lost progress to her prize, not changing wet clothes promptly, or making her clean up her own accidents (with help and safe/non-toxic means, of course).

Oh, and one last thing: Your daycare’s diaper policy sucks! They’re put in diapers all day but are still somehow expected to “fully train” on nights and weekends without any support at daycare? I get not wanting to deal with a ton of accidents but…that’s just par for the course for this age. Hell, even kindergarten classrooms are stocked with a ton of extra back-up clothing because accidents are still a thing that happen. Can you at least use Pull-Ups or training pants? Ask the daycare teachers to help with reminders, timers, something? Push back on the policy with other parents? I don’t want to come down super hard on your center here (as I’m sure it’s wonderful otherwise) but a good preschool/daycare should really help support you (and your daughter) during the potty training process (because it is a process, and oftentimes a lengthy one) rather than set her up for all-or-nothing failure.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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