We've been trying a number of techniques (videos, naked time, etc.) to help our almost-3yo to use the potty consistently, with some progress.

All of our techniques have fallen into the "entourage, but don't pressure" category. No shame for using diaper, almost all voluntary potty time, but a lot of "Let's try the potty!" from us.

One of the components we've been using includes rewards - our son got a lollipop for peeing in the potty, and we've been dangling bigger rewards (10 minutes with a comically large lollipop, plus a special Thomas train he gets if he poops. My question is this:

Are direct rewards like snacks or toys generally thought to be helpful or harmful as incentives?

I'm less concerned about whether they work in the short term (most incentives do) than whether they might be undesirable in that they move motivation from intrinsic (I'm proud of what I can do because I'm growing up) to extrinsic (I do this to get stuff).

3 Answers 3


Generally speaking, I believe intrinsic motivation is always stronger and more lasting than extrinsic, and entails fewer risks (e.g. feeling entitled to rewards for routine tasks).

Extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation is touched upon in Why should children be rewarded for good behaviour? and How do I deal with a child that refuses to do a chore or task?

The problem is that intrinsic motivation can be hard to provide.

We've been taking a similar approach to what you've described, although up until now, our extrinsic incentives have been limited to a couple of m&m candies when my son (now 3 and a half) pees on the potty, and the promise of an aquarium for when he's completely potty trained.

It has been... slow.

My son will happily try the potty most times if you suggest it, and will go through phases where he'll ask to go to the potty once or twice a day (especially if we're at a restaurant), but many times he doesn't actually have to go, and we've only had success with one bowel movement on the toilet (very early on, and likely an accident, as he seemed very surprised).

We discussed it with our pediatrician, and she cited lack of incentive. My son is happy to get the m&m's, but that's just a minor treat. He's excited by the idea of an aquarium, and keeps asking for it, but our pediatrician feels it isn't "real enough" for him, as it is just an abstract concept.

Her suggestion was to take him to pick out the fish and aquarium, and then make a chart with concrete goals to work towards (e.g. "Pee on the potty three days in a row and you get a guppy; go a full day without going in your diaper, and instead going on the potty each and every time, and you earn the aquarium; etc."). Once he's achieved the final goal (full potty training), he gets all the rewards he's earned.

So the professional advice we've gotten has been pretty firmly in favor of providing more extrinsic motivation.

We're currently working on developing the goals and the chart, so we haven't yet started that (although we did take him to pick out the fish and aquarium ornaments he wants).

My perception is that my son's peers who have older siblings tend to go through potty training a lot faster than my son. I'm not sure if that is simply due to the parents already having experience, or the intrinsic motivation of being able to be more like the older siblings, but I suspect that peer pressure from older siblings is one of the more effective intrinsic motivations out there.

I've heard mixed results on some other methods of providing intrinsic motivation, like "potty parties".

  • great answer (as usual). I am a firm believer in offering encouragement instead of rewards, but, with potty training I had to resort to rewards for both of my potty trained children. We used. "Potty chips" which were stickers on cardboard, which would eventually earn a train ticket to the Boston Children's museum (worth 50 potty chips). This, like your aquarium, set a goal that would only be realized with consistent success.
    – Jax
    Mar 19, 2014 at 22:18
  • FYI, my second child would only do #2 outside! We put the potty behind a bush (a place he would frequently crouch to do his business during diaper days,) and all of a sudden he had success with poop in the potty. Try to observe your child's current habits, and you might stumble upon a clue as to how to help him make it happen.
    – Jax
    Mar 19, 2014 at 22:27

My 3rd child was really stubborn, I ended up getting a large shoe box and filling it with dollar store toys as a reward treasure box. It did work eventually! All kids are different as far as their response to rewards. if your child suffers from anxiety, then rewards can be a trigger for anxiety.

  • +1 This worked well for us. One thing you have to be aware of is weaning them off the treats can be difficult after they are potty trained. We still use the "Treasure Chest" for encouragement, but for other activities instead of potty training. Mar 19, 2014 at 19:52

From my understanding (also in progress!), the point of the extrinsic motivations, whatever they are, is to help get past the initial difficulties - for a chemist, think "activation energy". You want getting on the potty to be a comfortable, familiar experience, with positive associations. So you provide an M&M or a sticker.

That allows the child to get past the initial fear/discomfort, and start having successes. Once that is past, the motivation likely will be unnecessary.

I see charts as slightly different. They are not exactly extrinsic motivation; they are a way of understanding the process in a way that allows you to see positive steps, which allows you to build intrinsic motivation. It's sort of like being at work; if you work on some huge project and have no idea of how close you are to finishing, it can be hard to try and work and build up your intrinsic motivation; but if you see you just went from 25% to 30% complete, you are able to motivate yourself to get to 35%. It is a sort of extrinsic motivation, but it's really geared towards allowing intrinsic motivation to work.

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