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By Scott Jacobs

When I turned 60, the last thing I expected was to spend a weekend locked in the house with a naked 3-year-old and a dying dog for potty training boot camp.

The dog defecated anywhere she chose. After 12 years, with a tumor the size of a grapefruit attached to her liver, Gracie knew what was expected of her. She just couldn’t do it. My son was a different matter.

I have two other sons, now 26 and 22, who were raised in an era when T. Berry Brazelton, the reigning child psychologist of the time, counseled that the child will tell you when he is ready to go to the potty. My memory of their efforts is hazy. (After all, it was 20 years ago.) But as I recall, it was a long, slow process of trial and error.

Patience in potty training is no longer a virtue. A generational shift in child rearing is now tilting toward the theories of Dr. Suzanne Riffel, a self-described “eye doctor and mom”, who claims potty training can be done in a weekend if you follow the simple rules she lays forth in Potty Boot Camp.

The New Pre-Requisite

A plethora of scientific studies give conflicting data on when is the best age to potty train: 18 months, 2 years, 3-4 years, whenever. Some studies claim to link potty training to a child’s future success. But who are we kidding? What does anybody remember about their own potty training?

What is not in dispute is that the sooner a child learns to pee and poop in the potty, the more ready he or she is to go out into the world on his own. The first of these adventures used to be kindergarten. But the explosion of pre-school programs has lowered the threshold from 5 to 3 years –– and no one is more of a potty Nazi than a pre-school teacher. (Some schools even have a three strikes and you’re out policy.)

So the pressure was on my wife and I to bring young Nick up to speed. Six months ago, my wife purchased a Fisher Price Royal Potty in a Box that rang out a triumphant greeting when a child peed or pooped onto its electronic sensors. I made fun of it at the time; but in the spirit of whatever works, I hauled it out  and put it in front of the TV.

Potty Boot Camp

Our plan was to follow Dr. Riffel’s 11-step program that promises to complete 90 percent of the training in two days. (This is also known as the “naked and $75” method: naked because the child goes the weekend without diapers and $75 because that’s the cost of cleaning up the mess.)

The eleven steps Dr. Riffel recommends in Potty Boot Camp are:

  1. Take child to potty. Pull down pants. Try to sit for 5 minutes.
  2. Be cheerful. Make a game of it.
  3. Set timer for 10 minutes.
  4. Give child liquids to drink.
  5. When timer goes off, check child’s pants. If dry, applaud, clap or cheer.
  6. Sit on potty again for 5 minutes.
  7. If no pee or poop, return to Step #3.
  8. Accident? This is what President Obama would call a learning moment. “Calmly but firmly talk about how pee and poop go in the potty and not in their pants . . . Perform cleanup procedure (see Appendix A.)
  9. Drill time. “Explain to the child that they now have to practice going to the potty.” Walk to another room then walk briskly back to the potty . . . “all the while talking about needing to practice since they had an accident.”
  10. Do this 10 times. Be firm. Do it even with crying or complaining.
  11. Go back  to Step #3.

Sounds simple, right? I went to sleep Friday night dreaming of never having to change a diaper again.

Day One

I’d become accustomed to my son sleeping until 6 AM. Saturday morning, I opened one eye  in bed at 5:30 and found him staring in my face. He had a big smile on his face. “Hello,” he said, an angelic smile on his face. “I want Sponge Bob.”

Dr. Riffel warns that TV is a reward that should be withheld for good performance. I was never good at following instructions. We trundled downstairs. I flipped on the TV, made coffee, and read the morning newspapers on the front stoop. Then I changed his diaper, but I failed to replace it.

When my wife came down to make breakfast, I noticed that my son, with an embarrassed grimace on his face, was tinkling on the floor. I rushed over but it was too late. Nonetheless, I scooped him up and sat him on the Fisher Price toilet. “Here is where you tinkle,” I said. To my son, the Fisher-Price toilet was as good a place as any to watch TV. But my wife insisted we follow the rules so she set the timer and we spent the day watching and waiting (repeating steps 1 to 3). It was almost 4 o’clock in the afternoon before we heard the first electronic music alert that our son had peed in the potty. We rushed over and lifted the lid to find a quarter cup of tinkle. High fives all around!

“Way to go,” my wife said. “What do we do next?”

“Give him a reward,” I said.

“What kind of reward?” she asked.

“I want an Oreo,” he said, as if this were an open debate.

“Give him an Oreo. He’s the man! He deserves it,” I said.

“We can’t give him an Oreo every time he goes to the potty. That’s too much sugar,” she said.

“Life has its trade-offs,” I said.

Day Two

Saturday night in the crib without a diaper was a disaster. Poop and pee went everywhere. Dr. Riffel counsels that there are worse things than for a child to feel the icky stuff ooze down his legs without a diaper . . . or to understand that he has fouled his nest. For whatever reason – and I maintain it was the Oreos ­– my son peed three times in the potty Sunday morning. I rewarded him each time with an Oreo cookie. He became used to saying, “I did it” and I became used to saying, “Here’s your Oreo.”

That  Sunday, my wife went  on a grocery shopping expedition  and found “mini-Oreos” that satisfied his need for a treat without sacrificing her aversion to sugar. He continued peeing on schedule, but the reward was apparently not enough to get him to poop, so we decided to up the ante.

Big Oreos vs. Small Oreos

Big Oreos versus small Oreos was my idea. If he peed, he’d get a small Oreo. If he pooped, he got a big one. Never underestimate how important it is for a boy to have the biggest Oreo on the block.

After Boot Camp weekend, my wife and I went back to work. Our nanny was left with the burden of carrying on potty training in a world of summer camps, visits to the pool, and riding tricycles with his friends on the sidewalk in front of our house. More than once he had an accident. It seems easy for boys to know when they need to pee, but harder to admit they want to poop. Poop for boys, apparently, is a concept that’s hard to get your head around. Our nanny thought he almost had it one day when he woke up from his nap saying he wanted to go to the potty. He plopped a ripe turd in the toilet. But when she saw a trail of excrement leading back to his crib she knew it was an afterthought.

The next day, my son told her he had to go to the potty again. She rushed him inside the house and, sure enough, the Fisher Price Royal Potty in Box heralded the arrival of excrement.

“You get an Oreo,” she said.

“I need a big one,” he said.

Ready to Go

I can’t say we’ve crossed the Rubicon of the River Shit. But we’re handing out big and little Oreos like they’re free play coins at Chuckee Cheese. We haven’t used a diaper since the first day we undertook Potty Boot Camp. And we’ve only done damage to about $15 worth of kiddie underwear – so far.

I guess it just goes to show: Knowing where to put your own shit – down the toilet – is the first sign of growing up.


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