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My Family and Other Globalizers | Potty training can be a parent's personal Everest, or Mt Abu at best

Parents: the struggle is real, but worth it. #biology

May 14, 2022 / 08:25 AM IST
Using the toilet sounds so simple, until you have kids. (Representational image: Charles Deluvio via Unsplash)

Using the toilet sounds so simple, until you have kids. (Representational image: Charles Deluvio via Unsplash)

Note to readers: My Family and Other Globalizers is a weekly parenting column on bringing up global citizens.

Few among the long, and usually messy, list of baby milestones – weaning, teething, stacking blocks, etc. – is as, erm, “aromatic” as potty training. Using the toilet sounds so simple, until you have kids. It can then transform into the Mount Everest of parenting for an unlucky minority, and even for the rest, a not-to-be-scoffed-at Mount Abu.

My Family and Other Globalizers logoBy the time my first born, Ishaan, was approaching his third birthday, he still showed no signs of dispensing with diapers. I’d read him endless potty-related books. I’d promised him golden star stickers for cooperation. And threatened him with dire consequences like enforced naptime. But Ishaan treated blandishments and coercion with equal scorn.

I felt like an enormous failure. Every other parent I bumped into seemed to have a child who’d taken to the commode like a fish to water. They made it sound so easy. What was wrong with my baby? Was it me?

The kindergarten that Ishaan attended in Brussels – the city we lived in those days – was not much help either. When I brought up my concerns about my son’s “delay” with his teachers, they suggested I meet with a pyschopedagogue. This sounded rather insulting. I may have been stressed, but was not yet certifiable. I calmed down once my spouse explained that a psychopedagogue was not someone who treated psychotic mothers, but merely the French term for an expert in child development.


At our meeting, the pyschopedagogue handed me a stapled copy of voluminous material on potty training, all of which boiled down to advising parents not to worry. “When the child is ready, the child will go to the toilet,” she insisted in a tone that brooked no dissent.

I was miffed. In India, babies were often out of diapers before they were walking. In China, babies and toddlers were commonly dressed in trousers called kaidangku, or open crotch pants, where a split over the buttocks area allowed the child to “use the loo” without the need for lowering them. Diapers were not part of the equation.

Ishaan had been born in Beijing, but we hadn’t gone in for the bare bottom look. Our Chinese nanny, Auntie Mei, had other tricks up her sleeve. She would surreptitiously divest the infant Ishaan of his diapers and hold him over the bucket that was usually used for hand washing clothes, while fiercely hissing ‘sssssssss’. The first time I stumbled upon her thus, she’d looked at me defiantly. “What? Soon he (Ishaan) won’t need diapers. You’ll save a lot of money.”

It required considerable adult intervention and cleaning up for early toilet training to succeed. In societies where most people could not afford disposable diapers, there was obviously a greater incentive to make this effort. In Europe, the combination of richer families and less help for mothers meant that toilet training was easier postponed.

Consequently, while all the two-year-olds in Ishaan’s crèche were able to independently use a fork and spoon with reasonable felicity, most of them were still in diapers. In India and China, the toddler-norm was the opposite.

In Ishaan’s case, the crèche pyschopedagogue was eventually proved right. One month shy of his third birthday, Ishaan used the toilet, and that was that.

Until Nico came along. My number 2 absolutely refused to go number 2 at all, except in a diaper. He eventually developed a withholding syndrome that involved years – I do not exaggerate – of unspeakables like suppositories. For me it meant moments like the time I was speaking at a literature festival in Bali about the role of journalists in China, while simultaneously texting with our nanny about the latest developments of my little’s bowel movements. #motherhood #worklifebalance #juggling

By the time he was four, Nico was finally using the toilet, if a tad fussily, during the day. But at night, his dam broke regularly, to copious flooding. The doctors, by this time in Tokyo, all assured me that I just needed to wait it out until he was biologically mature enough to hold it in. Some children matured later than others.

We waited. And waited. Finally, by the time he was almost six, I bought a pee alarm on Amazon. This was a contraction that clipped onto the child’s underwear and started loudly buzzing every time it detected any wetness. The idea was that the child would awake, be taken to the bathroom and his body would eventually learn to associate the feeling of wanting to go, with the need to wake up.

Dear reader: it worked! It took about three weeks during which time I slept with my younger son, awakening to the alarm multiple times at nefarious hours of the early morning. But never has disturbed sleep been more worth it.

Five year later, I am happy to report that the loo no longer looms large in our daily lives – although on occasion I still need to remind both boys to flush! Parents: the struggle is real, but worth it. #biology

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Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning independent journalist who has reported from, and parented in, China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. She is the author of 'Babies and Bylines: Parenting on the move'.
first published: May 14, 2022 08:25 am
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