"They need to be potty trained for Pre-K 3." Those words, spoken by a teacher during my son's school tour back in the spring, stung. You see, I had read a thing or two about potty training, and the gist I'd gotten was this: Wait until your child is ready — don't force it. And my kid was turning three after the first day of school — he'd still be pretty young in the fall. What if he wasn't ready, and I couldn't manage to train him? Would he get kicked out of preschool? I was freaked out.
And it was probably because I was so nervous that, I'll admit, I put potty training off. Spring turned into summer and our weekends quickly filled up with weddings, family gatherings, trips to the beach and soccer games. We were busy! Suddenly it seemed, there were just two weekends left until preschool and — because I know a thing or two about deadlines — I quickly got myself and my family in gear and started a weekend-long potty training boot camp. (If it didn't work that weekend, it better work the next right?) I put all plans and errands aside and decided to hole up at home (despite the nice, fleeting summer weather), and devote the entire weekend to my son and the potty — I didn't go anywhere and I didn't let my son out of my sight. Somehow it did work that weekend, and this is my best advice for recreating my success:
Splurge on the character undies
Disposable training pants are diapers. I knew I had to get my kid out of them to get him trained. But I had to get him to like underwear — and how do you compete with the Cars and Disney princesses? With more of your kid's favorite characters. I took my son to the store and showed him the full display of underwear and let him choose his favorites (Thomas & Friends were his choice). I didn't say "no" to anything he asked for. Besides, I needed a lot of pairs.
Make the goal clear
Over the course of the potty training weekend, my husband and I repeated the goal to my son what felt like hundreds of times — and it wasn't just "poop and pee in the potty" — he'd known he was supposed to do that for months now and that hadn't motivated him. The goal now was to keep his underwear clean and dry. We reminded him constantly that to do that, he'd have to tell us when we had to go. Trust your child to do that even if you think they won't — kids this age don't like to be forced to do anything.
Prepare for a ridiculous number of messes
If you're going to ditch the training pants, you can't expect your child to get it right away. Or even after a few accidents. It will take what feels like a million accidents. I handwashed my son's underwear in the sink until the entire bathroom was filled with hanging, drying undies. I was sick and tired of cleaning pee puddles. Yet, I still kept handing my son sippy cups of juice and water — as much as he'd drink. The more accidents the better, really. Each one is a step toward learning. Just pick up all the area rugs and arm yourself with plenty of floor and carpet cleaner.
Do what works best for your kid — and your family
I did a little bit of research, and some people think you should get rid of diapers completely when you potty train — even at night. But I knew my son wasn't ready since his diaper is pretty wet in the mornings, so I just focused on daytime and that was the right choice for us.
Use rewards but not bribes
Every time I said to my kid, "Go to the potty and you'll get a sticker" or "You can't have an M&M until you pee in the potty," he'd just throw a fit over the stickers or the M&Ms. So I didn't promise anything. When he got it right though, I did usually offer a reward and always a ton of praise, and he loved that.
Try to be positive — as much as you can, at least
Anyone who's ever taken a psychology class knows that positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement — so I knew praise for a job well done would work much better than scolding for mess-ups. I put on my enthusiastic hat and went crazy with the "Oh that's okay. You can do it next time!"s. But, I'm a little embarrassed to admit, by the morning of day two, my enthusiasm was beginning to run out. My son was starting to feel cooped up and cranky and so was I. I caught myself sighing a lot and getting a little dramatic about yet another pair of dirty underwear. Later I worried that my negativity might hurt the process but, luckily, things were okay in the end. Cut yourself some slack if you don't do everything perfectly.
Brag about the big kids you know
Looking back, I think the turning point happened toward the end of day two. My husband came home from the grocery store and we were chatting while my son was in the room. Somehow, I got the idea to start talking about his friends from school who are potty trained. "You know what?" I said to my husband, pretending like I didn't realize my son was listening. "Justin goes pee and poop on the potty. Isn't that so great? He wears underwear and keeps it clean and dry all day." "Yes, that's so awesome!" my husband replied. "What a big kid!" I looked at my son, who was wide-eyed, listening to our every word — I just knew it was sinking in. "And Mariah," he said. "She goes to the potty too."
Before I knew it, it was Monday morning, and I was hopeful my son had learned a few things, but pretty sure he wasn't potty trained. At that point, he had only gone successfully on the potty a handful of times — and it definitely wasn't consistent. All I knew was that going back to diapers (in the daytime) would feel like a huge setback and I didn't want to do it.
So I got him up, asked him if he wanted to sit on the potty. He said yes, sat down, and got every single drop where it was supposed to be. I packed his backpack for day care with a change of clothes, five pairs of underwear (yes, five) and a package of M&Ms. I reminded him about 40 times in the 10 minute drive to daycare not to pee in the car. Then I walked into the center, crossing my fingers that they'd accept a not-quite potty trained child in underwear and thankfully they did. The teacher said she'd take him to the bathroom often and I kept my fingers crossed. I expected the worst. But he kept his underwear clean and dry all day long — and week long. I never thought it would happen.