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The End of the Potty Reward System

The End of the Potty Reward System

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

I know you’ve written about potty training a million times before, but I can’t find a good answer to this conundrum anywhere, so I’m hoping you can help.

My 28 month old son is SO CLOSE to being potty trained, and thank you thank you thank you for all the previous columns and advice that helped me survive the weeks of pooping in his cloth training pants (which he is convinced are big boy underpants, and I’m not telling him differently until he outgrows them or they fall apart).

I took to heart some advice about trying to have “incentives” and “rewards” instead of bribes, but, seriously, that’s a fine line, and then I went out of town for a business trip and the sticker-based incentive system (after a certain number of stickers, he got a small toy, and he also got 1 hershey kiss for pooping on the potty, though with certain restrictions after he started trying to, um, stagger his needs throughout the day instead of just going once) had turned into an M&M based bribery system. That much candy made me uncomfortable, so to try to back away from that we invested in a bunch of cheap matchbox cars and told him that every day he went with no accidents he would get to choose one of the cars as his prize. He still got M&Ms when he remembered to ask for them, but mostly he was focused on the cars and forgot about the candy (and didn’t need to be bribed to sit on the potty in the first place).

This worked SO WELL. I mean, seriously, there was one day when he had an accident, but it happened because he told me he needed to go potty, but I was in the shower and decided we surely had enough time for me to finish rinsing my hair (no. no we did not) before helping him take his pants off (he can deal with his own underpants, the pants are a little much still). Anyway, we are about to run out of cars. Do we just stop rewarding him? Do I buy more cars? Will he regress? Every day when I come home from work he greets me enthusiastically: “Mommy mommy! No accidents all day! I get car when Daddy comes home! No accidents!”

Complicating factor: his baby sister is due in two months. I am anticipating a major regression around then, but he was clearly ready for training when we started, and we hadn’t wanted to wait and miss the window (particularly since he has to be totally completely no joke trained when he starts preschool next September). I worry that if we phase out the cars closer to when the baby comes, he will blame her. Stopping cold turkey now seems hard. Continuing to give him cars every day for the next several months seems excessive and expensive.

Thoughts? I really wish I’d thought this through more clearly when we began…

-How Many Cars Does One Toddler Need?

You know? This IS a tough call to make. I remember being in this exact tough spot — not wanting to rock the boat, but also not wanting to be doling out candy a dozen times a day either. (And oh my God, I just had the most hilarious flashback: We finally poop-trained a HIGHLY RESISTANT kid with a DVD of 101 Dalmations. Which he then expected to watch after every #2. For WEEKS. Even if said #2 happened at like, midnight. Talk about not thinking a incentive-based plan through.)

I’m not entirely sure I handled the end of the potty rewards all that gracefully — I think we mostly just stopped cold turkey with the explanation that the candy (and DVD viewings) were for potty training. And now we were done with potty training. And once you’re done with potty training you just use the potty because…well, welcome to real life and the process of growing up, kid. It kinda sucks and no one gives you things for not crapping your pants. (I did not include that last bit in my actual explanation, but based on the glares my children gave me I’m thinking the lesson came through.)

For the record, there is NO JUDGMENT from me on your choice of incentive. You do whatever works. My kids were rewarded/bribed with all sorts of stuff: Buttons! Thomas underpants! Chocolate chips! (Our artificial-color-free alternative to M&Ms.) DVDs! Ice cream cones! Restaurant outings! Lots of parents end up throwing sugar and/or money at the potty training process. Because it works. So…Matchbox cars worked. High five.

But you’re right, it’s probably time to move on. His habits are now well-established enough that any regression/uprising would ultimately be pretty temporary. The new baby on the way thing, however, does indeed give me pause and is holding me back from telling you to just go cold turkey when the current stash of cars runs out. But since he picks from the stash and can thus see and understand that there are no more cars, you can take that opportunity to implement a more challenging/realistic incentive plan. There aren’t any cars left, so he can’t get a new car every day. The end. BUT! Here’s your old sticker chart and you can earn a car by getting a sticker every day for a week. Make it a Friday thing, or give him some alternate fun choices — we’ll go out for pancakes on Saturday, or go to a museum or a favorite playground. That might cushion the blow of losing his daily car tradition, but still give him something to look forward to.

If he forgets and announces that he had no accidents and is expecting a car, respond with praise first and then gently remind him that there are no more cars, but! He gets a sticker and is one more day closer to whatever reward you’ve agreed upon. And honestly, I think a modest weekly reward is still pretty fair and deserved at this point — yes, he’s more or less trained but it’s still an effort on his part to stay completely accident free every day.

And then! The weekly reward chart can easily transition to other target behaviors, once you’re convinced that the threat of regression has past. Not being rough with the baby, for example. Putting his clothes in the hamper by himself or picking up his toys. No tantrums or trying a new food at dinner. You can keep the potty goal on there — it’s usually best to keep behavior charts relatively short and have a mix of “easy” things that you know he’ll accomplish and only one or two behaviors or tasks you’re actively targeting for improvement. So a sample chart for him could be three things: Staying dry (easy), plus two more daily routine-type items that are a little more challenging for him. Each week you start over and eventually you can remove the staying dry goal altogether.

If you think the sticker/behavior chart isn’t really his bag and you’d rather stick with a daily reward (at least until the possibility of a new sibling regression window has closed), I’d suggest buying a big assortment of super-cheap-o “treasure/prize box” toys and let him pick from there. (Think the kind of crap they give out at kids’ dentist offices, like this or this or this.) If you have a party supply store in your area, fill up a bag with items from the party favor aisle — they’ll be way cheaper than Matchbox cars, your son will probably dig the novelty of picking out his own “prize”…and yet ALSO the novelty will eventually wear off because yeah, in reality the toys aren’t anything THAT awesome. One day he’ll probably look through them and decide that he’s taken everything “good” out of the treasure box and lose interest. And hopefully by that point you’ll feel more comfortable going cold turkey on the rewards anyway.

(Because frankly, nothing cured my own guilt over any and all potty training pushiness faster than dealing with a newborn’s diapers. And comparing them to a toddler’s…uh…output. Child, you are not a baby. You are a MAN and you are going to put that man poop in the toilet because I Am Not Dealing With Man Poops.)

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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