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There may be other similar questions, and if so I'd love to be pointed to them, but our situation seems somewhat unique and I guess I'm mainly looking for advice on this specific situation, and maybe a bit of reassurance.

A few key points:

  • We likely started potty training our eldest son when he was too young and not quite ready for it. We didn't really research best practices and just kind of winged it

  • My wife has a hard time controlling her reactions to things. For the most part she's been pretty good, but over the last year or so she'll have four or five calm days, then something will cause an outburst and she'll upset our son. She's also not really been able to completely control her reactions surrounding our son and his bathroom breaks. Again, about 90% of the time she's great with it, but every now and then she'll upset our son again, which I believe is stressing him out and creating over-defiance. More recently I think this point is getting across to her, but I'm wondering if the damage has already been done and our son has regressed.

  • There is a younger brother in the picture at 1.5 years old, which has complicated things

  • We haven't really been overly consistent in our approach, and for a while maybe over-relied on taking him for breaks, rather than giving him the agency to go himself

  • He is now really strong at holding his pee and shows some interest in progressing in potty training. For example, he'll now say things like 'I listened to my body', or 'I stayed dry all day', but without reminders he still regularly wets himself. And despite having a few successful, self-directed bowel movements on the potty he regularly poos in his underwear. It's hard to tell if he's lost interest in co-operating, or still having a hard time figuring it out.

My question is:

Does this sound like a normal scenario? One of the challenging things I've found with potty training is getting a reasonable idea of where he should be at, at a given time. I know all kids are different, and progress differently, but at 3.5 should we be taking any extra measures, or just letting this run it's course?

I've seen some suggest seeing a pediatrician, but I think we generally know what we're doing now, but at times are having trouble executing. Am I overthinking this? Help much appreciated.

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    I'll encourage you by saying that some children just take longer than others, and there isn't really a 'right' technique. From the start of potty training to completely dry during the day was a two year process for our daughter (2.5 yo to 4.5yo) because we had no idea what we were doing as first time parents, and our daughter was very uninterested in potty training. My friend has a daughter the same age, and she "potty trained herself in 3 months" according to her (also first time) mother.
    – stan
    Commented Apr 15 at 5:24

3 Answers 3

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If I understand your situation correctly, you started potty-training some time ago and it is not really as successful as you hoped, and your sons seems disinterested.

From what I remember potty-training was a 'thing', in that we were all actively participating and anticipating. We had a system of rewards, for each visit to the toilet (or maybe just each successful visit, I'm not sure) our son would get a sticker.

This may be a cultural thing, this is common in the Netherlands. Some folks would give their child a little book to sticker, we just let our child stick them on the tiles next to the toilet.

In addition we would give him plenty of compliments. And we were actively keeping track of when we could expect another toilet break. Also if he indicated he needed to go we would arrange for this (few people say no to a child in need, we have had him on the toilet at the supermarket and such places).

There was still plenty of drama, of refusing to go (for example when playing), of us worrying about constipation. I do not recall exactly how long it took, but I do remember we as parents were keeping track and planning toilet visits every day. Also our child was looked after by grandparents two days a week at that age and they also participated.

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Since posting this question we've had some success with this technique:

  • A potty magnetic sticker chart which we're using to encourage him to take breaks without being prompted, so by himself
  • When he gets to the end of the row we're letting him make a trip to a nearby convenience store and pick out anything he wants

Months ago we'd used smaller incentives, stuff like chocolate M&Ms, but they didn't seem to help beyond getting him more acquainted with sitting on the potty.

Where taking him to a convenience store and a more major treat seems to be encouraging actual progress. Lately he's going to the potty by himself more often, and having more successful bowel movements. Still plenty of accidents, but we're moving.

I'm also reasonably sure that my wife's communication style has hindered our progress and created over defiance. I think things would have moved more quickly with a solid positive discipline approach.

Edit: A few months later we spoke to our family doctor who recommended that we take a break and put him back in pull ups. This turned out to be exactly what we needed to do.

I got it in my head that we were really close and had to nail it by his fourth birthday, so I was hesitant to take a break. But it was really the appropriate thing to do. We took all the pressure off of him, provided a big reset, and afterward he started making quite a bit of progress.

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  • When going to the convenience store, does he choose bigger things than you would normally have chosen as a reward, or is part of it also that he gets to do adult/big-boy things like making your own choice? Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 8:19
  • We typically don't reward him anywhere else in his life, or even take him to the convenience store, so it's an overall novel experience. He gets to do something fun that he normally wouldn't get to do. But yes, the reward and getting to choose himself are both a part of it.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 13:32
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Boys are harder

We're kind of in the same situation as you are and my son is now 4.

We've had a litany of issues with getting him to potty train consistently and when I recount the issues to others, I'm always met with, "Boys are harder."

Nobody's been able to tell me why boys are harder to potty train, so I'm not sure if they're just trying to make me feel better or if it's something else.

Anyways, my son has been doing better, but he's still not all the way there. At current, the state of victory is that he hasn't had an accident at pre-school for over a month and he usually doesn't wet himself at home; we're still dealing with issues of him holding his poop.

Here are some of the things we've tried:

  1. Sticker chart like Ivana described in their post. I will note that we tried this when he was 3 as an incentive to get him to go. It had some success but it didn't feel like much.
  2. Potty stories. This wasn't something we were consistent with and maybe we should've tried harder with, but I'd find a short story to read to him while he was on the potty. This works a lot better when we as the parents have time for this, but it's hard for that time to occur if you attempt option 3 as well.
  3. Scheduled breaks. I'd set a timer and when it went off, he needed to go sit on the potty. I think this works very well for a lot of kids, but for our son he would sometimes get very upset that we'd be making him stop doing something he liked to go sit on the potty and it would devolve into full blown meltdowns. I still think this is an appropriate thing to do, though, because we'd dealt with a truly absurd number of accidents whose sole cause was he didn't want to stop playing with blocks so he just peed himself.
  4. Consequences. I am inconsistent about this because it's such a time sink, but it has some knock-on benefits. Anytime he has an accident, I make his responsibility to take the dirty clothes directly to his basket, help him to clean himself up, and if the basket's full essentially do the full load of laundry with me (i.e. put it in the washing machine, transfer to the dryer, fold the clothes).
  5. Selective helping. This is kind of where we are right now after a very long slog. My son has a difficult time effectively wiping himself when he actually does poop on the potty, so I sort of help him by giving him verbal directions on exactly how much toilet paper to use, how to wipe, and check to see if he's clean. If he's missed spots, I just get them myself. Overall, the goal with this is to get him to do as much of the job himself as possible, but not force him to do the parts that he finds overly difficult so he doesn't get frustrated.

Honestly, we've tried all of the things above with varying degrees of consistency and unfortunately my wife is in the same boat as yours where she's cool about it 9 times out of 10, but absolutely loses it on the tenth time which I don't think is helpful to the overall goal. What makes things especially difficult is that often after 4:00, our son starts to get tired and thus becomes a lot more combative and the effort to get him to go to the potty becomes a lot more arduous.

I would say with regards to your wife, sympathize with her position, but ask her to just call you in instead of shouting. My wife often compliments that I'm much better with the kids than she is and I remind her that I just have a full battery more often than she does.

So yeah, my daughter didn't have this level of difficulty with potty training, so boys are harder. I don't know why, but my experience says they are.

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    Thanks for the comment, it's nice to hear from someone who's going through similar. I do know that boys tend to be a little more socially immature than girls, and less co-operative, so I wouldn't be surprised if there's something to that. Our boy is pretty talented and intelligent, but I think some of the positive discipline techniques we've used have taught him a kind of 'anything goes' mindset. My wife has been a little more authoritarian, and interestingly enough he sometimes responds to her better than me.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 18:51
  • @mcraenich y'all will definitely know what works best for your kid. My son's usually pretty kind and expressive throughout the day, but man after 4:00 it is just a complete dice roll on whether he's going to be cool. And when that happens we often have to go through a lot of discipline to get him to a point that he's not hurting himself or others with a meltdown. Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 19:41
  • as a counterpoint to "boys are harder" my boy was out of nappies by two and 100% done by three. I suspect its a "some kids are harder" thing. Though obviously two data points don't make a study.
    – R Davies
    Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 7:41
  • definitely a "some kids are harder" thing. My boy was easy, one of my girls was very very difficult
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Apr 13 at 9:38
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    @RoryAlsop my daughter too, she was very difficult. Took 2 years to potty train, and she still wets her bed at night 50% of the time (and she turns 6 next month!). She really just doesn't care, and is a really deep sleeper. Dr says night wetting is normal till 7!
    – stan
    Commented Apr 15 at 5:27

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