We've promised my 3 year old son an aquarium for when he completes potty training.

Progress has not been as good as we'd like (he pees on the potty almost every day, but has only pooped once). Our pediatrician suggested a chart, with specific goals he could work for, to make it more "real" than a nebulous promise of an aquarium when he's done.

We took him to the pet store, and had him pick out the tank, inhabitants, and ornaments.

We're planning on placing pictures of each of the items he picked out on a board, with specific goals associated with each item that he can work towards, and see progress with stars under each item.

For example, to get the aquarium itself, he'd need to complete all other goals, plus go x number of days in "big boy underwear" without an accident.

We've got between 10 and 14 different rewards to incorporate. He picked out 14 things, but I felt that that might be too many (plus I'm not sure we can fit all of that in one aquarium).

We want to start him right off the bat with feeling like he's making progress (so maybe something really easy for the first reward?), and we want to ensure that he continues to be motivated to continually make progress.

What goals should we set for each reward?

  • I'm curious of the answer here as well; I have a similarly aged kid at a similar stage. My biggest concern is that the goals need to be primarily short-term-achievable, as at that age, the idea of '14 days without an accident' seems unimaginable in terms of duration - and thus might not accomplish much.
    – Joe
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 18:42
  • @Joe For things like '14 days without an accident', we hope that the stars listed under each will help. Each day he goes without an accident, we'll fill in a blank with a star, but if there's an accident, we'll remove all of the stars for that goal and start over. I'm hoping that will make it a bit more "real", without being overly frustrating/discouraging.
    – user420
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 19:05
  • Well, to put this in context, when we were trying harder we tried a one-day version of that [Go one day w/o accident, you get to pick a matchbox car from this bag we bought from a neighbor] and it never worked - he just didn't remember it ten minutes later as far as I can tell. Perhaps we started too soon, though daycare was telling us they thought he was ready. Oh well.
    – Joe
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 19:07

2 Answers 2


I got lucky when it came to potty training. All I had to do was ask her and she did it. Wow!

Other tasks weren't so easy, though. I don't recall what it was I was try to teach her, but this is what I did and what I hope will help you by my sharing it.

First, I would recommend not calling it "an accident". The reason being is that we all naturally want to avoid accidents, but I find the "stick" not as effective as the "carrot" and mixing the two to be less effective. Another natural trait of human beings is the desire to be great, so why not try renaming it as "14 days of success"? It's far more encouraging, in my opinion, to be able to say, "I did it!" as opposed to "I didn't do something incorrect."

Now, for what I did with her. She loved certain dolls and characters at the time. So I bought a bunch of stickers that she was extremely in love with. Then, we sat down together and crafted a success map (with her largely defining goals she felt she could meet), drawing circles along the way. I posted that on the wall and whenever she was successful, she got to choose a sticker to put in the next circle and she got to place the sticker in the circle (or, roughly in the circle given her age at the time).

There were bonus markers along the way where she got something. Perhaps for your son, going out and getting that part of the aquarium? Those mini-bonuses "keep it real" when they are that young... it is so easy to think (at that age) that you'll never get to the end.

Keeping the positive re-inforcement in mind, I would occassionally whisper to her (there was no one listening, but it gave the impression of super-secret coolness) that because she had _ (insert something about the successes which is relevant and showing a pattern), I was going to let her cheat and have TWO stickers! She ate it up.

The essence of the activity is that it was changed into a continuous, active, rewarding game engineered around her particular interests... the task she was to complete became secondary to "winning the game" and that resulted in my desired goal: the task completed well.

Years later, I have that chart in her baby book. She thinks that it's so cute and wants to know what she was working toward. While I wrote the date on the back, silly me didn't write the goal.


The initial goal should be simply using the potty. This creates a strong positive connection to the desired behavior, that is easy for the child to comprehend. I'd also recommend the reward be some sort of short, focused time with the parent - can be a game of patty cake, reading them a very short book. It's both relatively "free" and they can never eat too many! Depending on the child's level, you can also engage them with picking the next activity.

Once you get some reasonable consistency, you can work on linking behaviors together -- namely going potty twice in a row. Reduce the reward for just going once down to a hug, high five, etc. and save the "bigger" rewards for consecutive potty use.

Negative consequences for potty "mistakes" should be avoided at all costs. Their actual control is limited, and any added anxiety will only make it more difficult.

  • The advice you give is good, but honestly, I don't feel like this answers the question. You're discussing what the rewards should be. I already know the rewards (the various parts and residents of the aquarium). What I'm looking for are what are the best milestones to which I should tie those rewards.
    – user420
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 16:47
  • The best milestone is "using the potty". Once they start showing some mastery (do not expect 100%), start encouraging / rewarding self-management. Best of luck!
    – Shawn C
    Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 16:44

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