And then suddenly… it stopped. We’d take her to school wearing panties and she’d come home in a diaper. And different clothes. One day this week, she came home in pants that weren’t even hers; she’d burned through all her extra clothes in a single day. We certainly understand that accidents happen, and so we’d send her to school with several changes of clothes and extra pairs of panties. All of them would come home dirty and she’d be back in diapers. This is no longer a case of having a few end-of-era accidents. It’s like she has given up potty-training. It seems as if she has completely lost interest in going to the toilet on her own.
As a parent, it’s disappointing and a little distressing. It’s tempting to throw our hands up and moan out loud that our daughter will be sent off to college wearing diapers because she is never going to learn. This isn’t true, of course; she’s not even three yet. But it’s so frustrating to be so close that we could nearly taste the freedom from diaper changes and then be set back completely. Not only are we changing diapers again, but now every time I fold a load of freshly washed laundry, I have to sniff her panties just to make sure they got completely clean. (Perverts using Google: that last sentence is what brought you here. Sorry.) No one told me when I became a dad that I would be scrubbing poop out of tiny panties with my bare hands.
Perhaps you, too, are experiencing a similar regression in your own child’s potty-training. Or, for that matter, any other developmental milestone. Because this is not the first time we’ve seen this kind of behavior. She did it with walking. She did it with talking. She did it with learning to feed herself. She did it every time we changed anything in her sleep routine. Not only is it common, it’s actually a normal function of the learning process.
When she first started walking, she’d do it just enough to prove she knew how. Then she’d go back to crawling, because it was so much quicker and easier. Walking was fun and exciting, but walking all the time was just exhausting! It’s fun to learn something new, but who wants to work hard all the time, am I right? Why would potty-training be any different? She’s proven she can pee-pee and poopie in the potty; she’s gotten loads of stickers and treats for it; been there done that. Now she’s ready to go back to the much easier life of just going in her pants and letting someone else clean it up. In fact, just reading that sentence over again, it sounds pretty good to me. Think of the time I could save on bathroom breaks if I didn’t have to stop whatever I was doing, go to the bathroom, take my pants off, blah blah blah. I could just keep playing! Well, if I played. I take bathroom breaks basically to give myself a ten minute break from my hectic life. Maybe what Curly Fries needs is a fulltime job and a toddler.
But seriously – what kid wouldn’t rather just let an adult do all this for them? The novelty of a new skill wears off pretty fast when the realization sets in that you’re supposed to do this from now on, forever. My parents told me a story about me as a first grader. Apparently, they were called in to meet with the teacher who was concerned about my sudden halt in math skills. I had been progressing in my arithmetic workbook at a rapid pace and then in a matter of days nearly came to a standstill. The teacher had observed me to determine that I still understood the concepts of addition and subtraction; there didn’t appear to be anything about the material that stumped me. What they determined was that I had lost the motivation to work hard and fast. As it turned out, the day I stopped working so fast was the same day as two of my peers finished their math workbooks – and were subsequently handed new ones. What was the rush? Why hurry to finish one workbook only to have to work on a newer, harder one?
This is how we learn. Think of the skills you use in your everyday life, the skills you take for granted. Perhaps you remember when they were new, how excited you were to learn that you were capable of performing this task. And then the newness wore off and it either just got harder and more advanced or boring and routine. Have a musical instrument in your attic that you quit learning when it got hard? Did you train for a marathon and then let yourself go again after running it? Have you gotten a promotion only to realize a month later that the salary raise didn’t quite match the increase in responsibility? Learning is exciting right up to the point when it suddenly becomes hard and not exciting.
Eventually, we will stop giving her stickers for going in the potty. What will her rewards be then? Why do you go in the potty? What’s your reward? Well, I’ll tell you what it is for me: avoiding the crushing humiliation of pissing my pants. Because I’m a grown-ass man. Every single thing we do, we do because it rewards us in some way. The trick is reaching the point where the cost of the new learning is less than the cost of not learning. Going to the potty myself takes some effort, it’s true. But it’s worth the effort to avoid the alternative. The costs of being potty-trained far outweigh the costs of being a grown man in diapers. (Google perverts: sorry again.)
All learning works like this. Learning something new always costs us something. All growth requires us to give something up. Walking requires giving up crawling; being potty-trained requires giving up diapers; talking requires giving up silence. Notice how in nearly every situation you can think of, learning requires that we take new responsibility for ourselves. Whether it’s feeding yourself or doing math, mowing the lawn or paying your bills, learning a new skill means employing that new skill. What this costs us is comfort and laziness. Which, frankly, kind of sucks. So if we had the choice to go back, wouldn’t we? Of course we would. Unless the cost of going back is higher than the cost of being responsible.
When Curly Fries was learning to walk, she didn’t start doing it all the time until she was promoted up at school to a class where nobody was crawling. At that moment, the cost of doing this new work all the time was lower than the cost of not fitting in to her social situation. Crawling was too slow to keep up with her peers, and you don’t have to be very old in the world to want to do the same things that your peers are doing. Everyone in her class right now is in varying stages of potty-training, but they all still have diapers. Soon, though, she will be promoted to her next class, where she will be the youngest and other kids will be wearing big-girl panties all day long without incident. Having to get her diaper changed will slow her down compared to her peers. The costs of not going in the potty will increase.
Until then, we her parents get to live with the frustration of watching this regression into laziness. We know she can do it if she wants to; she just doesn’t want to. You know anyone like that? Of course you do. You probably are that person, at least in some part of your life. Be patient with other people struggling to learn something, just as you should be patient with yourself. Learning is tough, exhausting work all on its own, and then to find out that it just comes with more learning? That’s no fun.
We probably could all agree as adults that we don’t want to go backwards, regressing to a more helpless or childish state. But let’s all remember that there’s a little grief involved in moving forward and putting childish things behind us. Learning is as costly as it is liberating, and our children know this. Better than we do, perhaps.