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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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  • Isabel Kallman

    Isabel Kallman

    October 28, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Well done, mama!

    I totally second what Amy recommends above.

    My husband and I use a daily and weekly reward system with our 10 year old son and it totally works.  We have been doing it for a few years now and I wish we had started when he was younger.  Like Amy wrote, you will swap in new  targeted behaviors as goals are reached and this system can serve as a framework for years to come.

    What I have found is that keeping the reward system fresh and the rewards enticing is important.  Every child has a reward that will motivate him/her and it’s common for a child to lose interest and you will need to mix it up. And, rewards can be privileges, not just things that you buy.


  • Kay

    October 28, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    I also second the idea that rewards can be privileges. With a new baby coming, privilege rewards can also reinforce that babies wear diapers but big kids go to the potty AND get to do lots of other cool stuff with Mom/Dad/babysitter/Grandma as a result. That could well be enough to shorten any regression, plus you won’t have a gazillion more cars to pick up!

  • Karen

    October 28, 2013 at 2:28 pm

    I agree but incentives but they get a bit tiresome. we are now dealing with a 7 year-old who asks, “What do I get?” every time I tell him to do something. I bite my tongue when I want to yell, “you get to live another day!”

  • Karen

    October 28, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    For pretty much all the stated reasons, we have now ditched the incentive/bribe/reward system in favor an “Ellyn Satter version of rewards” – regularly scheduled treats like movie night, fro-yo, etc. if something isn’t going right that day or that week, then whatever regularly scheduled event is coming up gets canceled. Has been an amazing change for our house.

    (Note – potty does not count in this system, I refuse to include potty in a reward system any longer as had it became a control issue in our house.)

  • Danielle

    October 28, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    Hahaha, “I Am Not Dealing With Man Poops”. Amy, you’re the best.

  • Diana

    October 28, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    It might be less of an issue than you think. At my house, we just ran out of jellybeans one day, and that was the end of it. I did warn him for a few days beforehand.

    We are almost out of jellybeans, tomorrow no more jellybeans, etc. And that was that….

  • OP

    October 28, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    THANKS THIS IS ALL SO HELPFUL. Especially the part about how we aren’t the only morons with no endgame.
    I think I’ll follow the advice to stop when we run out (probably tomorrow!), but revert to the sticker chart + weekly prize, because, seriously, there are so many cars in our life right now, not to mention Halloween candy.

  • Heather

    October 28, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    We did the same reward for potty training! My son was CarsCarsCars obsessed, so it was a great reward. I too went the Hot Wheels/Matchbox route, because I could buy them for 97 cents. Of course I didn’t think this through….and wound up where you are. We reverted to the sticker chart. I think it started at 3 days, no accidents = car. Then we lengthened the time to 5 days, then 7 days…and he just lost interest. He also reverted to diapers briefly when the baby arrived. But I didn’t make a big deal about it (almost no comment) because I read somewhere just to humor this stage…and soon he was back on the pot! Good luck!

  • Heather

    October 28, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    Also, while I love the idea of privileges, it’s hard to keep a promise to go out for a treat, read a book, do a craft, etc. when you have a newborn. Just be careful of promises you can’t keep (immediately) especially in that sensitive “new baby gets all the attention” time period with your son. 😉

  • Leigh

    October 28, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    Been there, first kid, boy, same age, but with a two month old baby. We were doing cars at one point for successes. But he forgot about the old ones, so I just put them back in the bag.

    Sticker charts have also been our friend for things like staying in bed. Both my four and two year old are currently being rewarded with pompoms for keeping their bottoms on all night. Whatever works.

    My daughter trained at 24 months, and was “done” two months before her sister arrived. Her only trick when she came was to go dry at nights.

  • susan

    October 29, 2013 at 2:12 am

    To end our bribery (we used one or two chocolate chips)(my kid’s just 26 pounds at 3 1/2), I took a page from my dog trainer’s advice for our dog and just added another step. Ok, you used the potty and that used to get you a treat? Now use the potty and flush it yourself. Then use the potty, flush it, and wash/dry your hands with no help. And on and on. And sometimes we were out of chocolate chips; sometimes we weren’t. And I only gave them to her when she asked. And then I moved them out of sight. We also had a second on the way so didn’t really want to go cold turkey, either. Congrats and good luck!

  • Lesley

    October 29, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    You could also transition from getting a car to getting to play cars with mom or dad.  Like when daddy comes home it’s a 15 minute block of car play, or whatever other thing your son would like to do.

    Later, after the baby is born, you might switch it to a baby-free block of mommy time once daddy gets home.

  • Cara

    October 29, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    I think I’d go with my gut (you know your kid, trust it), but I’d leave the new baby factor out of the decision.  I haven’t dealt with the problem, but several friends with have and I’ve gotten to observe several strategies up close.  My take away was that a kid who is going to regress a bit at the new sibling will do so pretty much whatever you do.  And it will almost certainly be in a way you didn’t expect.  Because you’re thinking potty training it will inevitably be food – or the sudden inability to walk anywhere.  Ever.  (You didn’t think stroller was going to be for baby did you?).

    So, if I were you, I’d do whatever you think best about the cars and just plan to address sibling rivalry no matter what.  Make sure he gets one time with you, have family members take him our on special outings, give him big boy privileges… that stuff.  And, if need be, break out the pull ups for a few more weeks and know that this, too, shall pass.

    • Kate

      November 10, 2013 at 9:29 pm

      My son totally did the stroller thing so we just wore the baby and let him ride in the stroller. My kids are early walkers so by the time she was 1 she wanted to walk anyway. Even now at 4.5 and 2 he still prefers to ride (despite being a very active kid) and she insists on walking.

  • Wallydraigle

    October 30, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    A friend gave me this idea. We just slowly eased off on them. For the first couple days, when they asked, “Oh, I don’t know where the treats are. Next time, I’ll give you one.” And then a few days after that, “Hmm. I think you’ve had enough candy for now. Maybe later today after you go potty.” And then, “Maybe next time.” I gave them more and more sporadically, and after maybe a week, they stopped asking.

  • Autumn

    October 31, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    But if you are doing a candy based reward system, buy some now.  All ready for potty training now, great Amalah advice and a huge bag of smarties 

  • Candace Powell

    November 1, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Starting to potty train our daughter. Reading the experiences of other parents is beneficial.

  • Melissa

    November 5, 2013 at 12:46 am

    Pants: use only elastic waist pants.  No buttons and zippers.  We didn’t think of this until our son started preschool and the director suggested that’s all we send him to school in…and ohhhhh.  We had a bunch of button and zippered pants, but switched them out for all elastic with one trip to the local kids’ resale shop.

    Our at-home-always-needing-help-with-pants problem was solved.  

  • OP

    May 15, 2014 at 5:48 pm

    Update! months later! 
    We lucked out. We gradually switched to the weekly rewards and he…almost didn’t notice? I mean, he noticed, but he didn’t need the rewards any more. 
    And, also, the baby came and he didn’t regress. There was a lot more disruption than anticipated (a more complicated birth/recovery) and he handled it like a champ. He had one accident and that was it. She’s almost 5 months old now and he’s adjusted brilliantly, potty-wise and otherwise. Obviously the other shoe will fall soon. 
    Thanks for all your help!! 

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