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Potty Training and Is My Toddler Ready?

Potty Training Wars: The “I Can But I Just Don’t Wanna” Kid

By Amalah

Dear Amy:

Your advice has gotten me through the first three years of my twins’ life (4 If you include my pregnancy) and I’m hoping you can help me now, too.

I started potty training my boy/girl twins at about 22 months. We did the boot camp method, and it worked really well for my daughter, but my son couldn’t have possibly cared less. She hated when the pee ran down her legs, so stopped peeing anywhere but in the potty. She hasn’t had a problem since. For him, apparently, the nice thing about a penis is the pee doesn’t run down your legs. He just peed on my carpet, my couch, my tile…you get the idea. And he enjoyed cleaning up.

So we tried undies. “Keep your undies clean so you can keep wearing Mickey Mouse!” It worked for a minute, but he doesn’t care if he’s wet! And he doesn’t care if we take away the undies. The worst part is that he has pretty loose stools (he’d eat his weight in fruit if we let him) and in the underwear it’s AWFUL. We’re back to Pull-Ups because at least we don’t have to clean those out (he also enjoys cleaning out his underwear, so it’s not a terribly effective consequence).

Now they’re 3, and he’s perfectly *capable* of using the toilet. He’ll go at bedtime (stalling, but he at least pees even though it’s usually after the Pull-Up is wet) and he’s even pooped on the toilet at church and at home. He’ll go pee or poop on the toilet when he wants, but some days he’ll just run around wet or poopy forever. He just doesn’t care, and it’s driving me insane!

You’ve written replies for kids who are avoiding potty training, and for kids who are too stubborn to sit on the potty, but he knows what he’s doing!

What do I do for a kid that *can* use the potty, but couldn’t care less about the natural consequences of *not* using the potty?

Am I Really Consigned to Poop Duty Until He’s Five???

For kids who seriously, continuously, do not give a flying crap (pun originally unintended but now I’m keeping it because HA!) about the negative “natural consequences” of not using the potty, you might have better luck by focusing on a super-duper amazingly POSITIVE consequence. Also known as an incentive. A reward. Whatever.

And no, I’m not talking about a sticker chart or M&Ms. (Which I assume you tried and your son was like, nahhhhh.) When a perfectly capable kid holds on this long, you gotta up the ante. Not necessarily in price. (Although I had a friend whose potty-avoiding son was closing in on 4 and had to literally promise him Disneyworld to get him to finally use the toilet.) You just need to find something he really, really, REALLY wants and then make that contingent on using the potty at home X number of times.

And it might take awhile to find That Something — I know I’ve told this story before, but to get my Halfway There kid (trained for pee, refused to poop) fully-trained, I started making literally everything and anything he asked for contingent on pooping in the potty. New toy? Poop on the potty. Fancy looking cupcake? Poop on the potty. I was like a broken record, and most of the time he responded by simply losing interest or dropping the request.

I made offers of my own: We’ll go a train museum or a water playground. I’ll buy you this or get you your very own that. This was an exercise in futility, because nothing I offered was worth it to him.

Then one weekend he watched 101 Dalmations at his grandparents’ house and asked if we could buy a copy for our house.

“Sure,” I said, practically on autopilot, “but only if you poop on the potty.”

And lo and behold, it worked. He really, really wanted a DVD of 101 Dalmations of his very own, enough to finally get over whatever mental block/fear/pure stubbornness he had about pooping on the dang potty. He went in and did it all by himself, and then came to me to ask for his reward. (Which we then had to get in the CAR and go BUY and at a STORE like non-streaming SAVAGES.) For about a week, he was allowed to watch the movie any time he successfully went (even in the middle of the night, sigh) so we could make sure it wasn’t a one-off kind of thing. Once the habit was cemented and it was clear he wasn’t likely to regress, we nixed the full movie and would let him watch part of it, then just maybe listen to the songs, and eventually pooping on the potty became just a regular ol’ thing that happened all on its own. HALLELUJAH THANK YOU CRUELLA DEVILLE.

So…that’s what I’d suggest you try next. At home, let him wear whatever is easiest for your sanity while you figure out what will truly incentivize him (since obviously running around wet/poopy isn’t enough of a negative natural consequence to him, but sure is a negative for YOU). Maybe there already is something that he’s asked for that you’ve said no to, but have in the back of your mind for his birthday or Christmas. Or just do what I did and make every little thing contingent on potty training until you hit upon that magic something.

Oh, and one other sneaky trick, since you mentioned him using the toilet at church: Is there at all a difference/distinction for him about accidents at home vs. accidents while he’s out? Like he’ll run around wet/poopy all day at home but gets maybe a tiny bit self-conscious about having visible accidents in front of strangers/peers? If so, RUN WITH THAT. Obviously you don’t want to publicly shame him or anything, but maybe getting him out of the house for long stretches of time (in underwear) with regular reminders that he’ll need to use the potty if he doesn’t want people/kids seeing him wet or poop his pants would help? (Since you KNOW he’s perfectly capable when he wants to, so it’s not like you’re setting him up for failure by expecting too much.) At home, it’s easy to just strip down and wash his dirty clothes and not be embarrassed, but those “natural consequences” might not be so easy to tolerate when it’s in front of other kids.  And even if peer pressure doesn’t work, having an accident away from home means that whatever fun thing you’re out doing will IMMEDIATELY come to an end because oops, you had an accident and now we have to go home and clean up there. Boo, this is no fun! Next time just use the potty and we can stay as long as you want!

Good luck, and let us know what ends up working for him! (Because he WILL train, I promise. At some point. Eventually. Sigh, children.)


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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  • Myriam

    August 14, 2017 at 11:23 am

    I’d add “maybe just put him bakc in diapers and drop it?”. You know he can do it, but for whatever reason he doesn’t care enough yet. Maybe juste let him get there on his own? I have a feeling that maybe, just maybe, it will take as long for him to be ready by himself as it would take him with you “incentivizing”…

    • Caroline Bowman

      August 15, 2017 at 5:00 am

      that was my immediate thought. Obviously his twin was a pretty early trainer, because under 2 is quite young, and that is fantastic… but he clearly isn’t there yet. Why not just put him back in nappies completely and drop the subject for a while, like, a few months. Just literally don’t even talk about it. Then raise it again. He will probably be much more ready mentally, though he evidently is physically. My 3 kids were so different – all boys. The first one was completely dry, no potty, just toilets, no need for night pull ups or anything at 2.5. The next one went hysterical at the mere mention of the idea but then a switch flipped about a month before he turned 3 and he was totally trained in about 2 days with minimal accidents of any kind since. The youngest, my stubbornest by far, wouldn’t entertain the idea at all. On his 3rd birthday we put him in undies. He screamed and screamed and hated it for about an hour.

      The point is that kids are all different and the mental side is almost as important as the physical. 22 months is young (AND WONDERFUL, I might add), but he is just not there and you can run yourself ragged or literally just start again in a few months.

      • K

        August 17, 2017 at 11:08 pm

        Totally agree! I’m betting if OP drops it (especially with a twin being trained) the reluctant kiddo will do a round about in a few weeks or months – basically once it’s obvious no one cares anymore. I would go all the way back to diapers, and let him know that when he’s ready it’s straight to underwear, no pull ups. I might also make a big deal about changing him (maybe more than strictly necessary) – checking every few hours like you would with a baby, taking a bit longer to change him…basically making it clear that diapers are actually less convenient/less fun for him than just using the potty like he knows how. One thing that made a difference for us – no middle ground. Trained = underwear, not trained = diapers like a baby/treated like a baby in diapers. I didn’t wait for him to tell me – I checked and changed him at an annoying rate just to interrupt play and make it clear that this was definitely not happy fun times where mom cleans up all the time lol

  • Jeannie Shirley

    August 14, 2017 at 11:25 pm

    Does he do any activities or go to preschool at all? I had one who was a bit reluctant about the toilet and the start of preschool with bigger kids who all used the toilet was like flipping a switch. All of a sudden, wearing pull ups or diapers was babyish and underwear was like a big kid and I had no more problems. I marvelled at it and the teachers laughed and said that was super common. A positive side of peer pressure, so to speak. And maybe if he’s not in preschool, any other activity might have a similar effect? Soccer / swimming / whatever?

  • Erica

    August 15, 2017 at 11:13 am

    My daughter was just like your son. We started training shortly after she turned 2 when both we and our daycare felt she was ready. She could use the potty but had zero interest and was never bothered by being wet or poopy (to the point that she didn’t even seem to notice!) We did ALL THE THINGS with zero success until one day, a couple months after she turned 3, she just up and decided that she wanted to use the potty. And that was that, it was done. She made it a full day without an accident, asked for the “potty prize” we’d be holding on to for the last 3 MONTHS, and was suddenly trained (with occasional accidents but very much on par with her peers). I think she just had to decide she wanted to. At the time she trained we were keeping her in undies (daycare didn’t love the idea of going back to diapers) and trying very hard (with imperfect success) to not make a fuss about accidents so she didn’t get attention for them but I really have no idea if that had any effect on her. At any rate, I thought it might help to hear that there are other kids who take the same approach as your son and that they do potty train eventually!

  • Kat

    September 7, 2017 at 3:19 am

    I’m struggling with this- our oldest potty trained herself (after a year of not pushing the issue but just constantly working on it, And then it just clicked) and it worked out ok. Our second, though, has known the potty routine and can (almost) consistently pee on the potty. Pooping can happen on the potty but you have to watch her like a hawk and the second she squats you have to swoop in or there’s a fun present for everyone. Not that worrisome to me, she IS getting it, but just doesn’t seem to care all that much. She just turned three and is the (not) happy sister of a five month old baby and is still very stuck on the I still want to be a baby thing. All of this is great except she was supposed to start preschool last week. And she did. And two out of the three days she pooped in her underwear. Oh, and they call you to come and change her. And I’m at home nursing a baby and taking care of big sister because her school hasn’t started yet but I’m supposed to get there now, and I’m laughing hysterically in my head and trying not to cry when they call and tell me all of this. So she has stayed home to work on potty training this week and there is no way she is ready. She really is doing great, but she’s just not there. And I NEED her to go to school. She loves it. I need my sanity. But I don’t think they will take her back if she’s not more trained and even if they do I canNOT handle getting one more stupid call saying she pooped, come change her. Is there even a solution for this? There is absolutely no incentive that she cares about to be consistent- she just doesn’t seem to be quite ready to pay super close attention to what her body is telling her and she just doesn’t care about anything and everything we’ve tried offering. She is not and has never been motivated by things, she has to WANT to do it herself. No toy, trip, person, movie, game, food, privilege, encouragement etc etc etc has ever worked. She loves praise but it’s not enough. Am I doomed?!

  • Polopoly

    December 19, 2017 at 7:26 pm

    After bribes, threats, nagging, reversion to diapers, etc etc, the thing that worked is to make a big issue of me going to the potty. “Ooh I feel something, let me stop what I’m doing and run to the potty!” Soon she was copying me “i feel peepee too”. And thus the light at the tunnel was visible.