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Extreme Potty Training: A Diary

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"Don't do it."That's what my doctor replies when I float my toilet-training game plan. "Are you insane?" asks my husband, Paul.

"You just want to ruin our rugs so you can buy new ones at Pottery Barn."

I'm aware of the standard advice: Wait to potty train until your child shows "interest." Do it gradually. Twenty-four months is too young to start, especially for boys.

But I'm on a mission. Two of my girlfriends trained their boys bootcamp style at age 2, and they insist this method will prevent the Russian Parliament—level power struggles that can erupt when kids start later. Indeed, I know a mom whose 3 1/2-year-old insists, "I don't want to poop in the toilet. I don't care what other kids are doing. I want my Pull-Up." I'm hoping to get my boys comfortable on the potty while their conversational skills are limited to "Big truck! Dirt!"

I'm also eager to slash our $150-a-month diaper bill and minimize our contribution to the local landfill. Plus, hoisting 30-pounders, kicking and screaming, onto those hard plastic public-restroom changing stations—well, I'm just not that into it.

So here's the plan: Come Monday morning, we'll say "Bye-bye, diapers!" except when the boys sleep. I've re-arranged my work schedule to devote the entire week to supervising basic training with our exceedingly patient nanny, Amanda. On the advice of my friends, we're giving the boys three weeks, total, to catch on.

I'm hopeful yet skeptical, given the apparent cluelessness of our recruits. There's Private Ian, a wily redhead with his own agenda. Though he has sat on the potty before, Ian has flunked every "readiness" quiz on the Internet. (Is he uncomfortable in dirty diapers? No. Is he proud when he does something that pleases you? Nope.)

Private Toby, an earnest towhead, is seemingly more suited to the task. A neat freak, suck-up, and born follower, Toby would make an excellent communist. Or vice president. He recently started noticing his dirty diapers but has yet to grasp the concept of "wet."

Let boot camp begin!

Day 1

9 a.m.: The boys are on the loose in the yard, naked, with water bottles in hand. To maximize the odds of a "hit," boot-camp speak for peeing on the potty, we set the oven timer to ring every ten minutes. When the bell sounds, we say, "Potty time!" and escort the boys to the potty chairs on the patio. When a mere drop of pee lands in the potty, we cheer and help them place an airplane sticker onto a card. Then we lead the guys into the house to pour the contents from the "small potty" into the "big potty."

In the morning alone, the boys pee an astonishing 25 times total, earning 17 stickers for hits. The small-potty/big-potty route is busier than a rush-hour freeway. The boys seem oblivious to our mission but follow along. Amanda and I are wrecked. And starving. We've barely been able to use the potty ourselves, let alone eat. At naptime, I stagger to my desk, like a punch-drunk boxer after the bell.

Day 3

After two days, we've slowed the pace by ditching the bell and ushering the boys to the potty every 20 to 30 minutes. We've also put their clothes back on, since they barely registered they were peeing on themselves when they were naked. But the boys have lost all interest in the stickers; Amanda and I are caked in dried urine; and we're certain of failure.

While Ian and Toby nap, we agree to finish out the day diaper-free, then pretend this harebrained experiment never happened. I'm relieved.

That afternoon, though, Amanda and I say by rote, in unison, "Ian, you're going pee-pee," as we catch him in the act. Then, on his own, he appears to make a small pivot toward the potty. Or maybe it was a move toward his fire truck? Perhaps, in desperation, we've hallucinated this marginal sign of comprehension.

I rush to call my friend Stacy, who trained her son cold turkey when he was 2, to discuss the implications of the pivot. "Omigod, that's huge!" Stacy insists. "HUGE."

Her pep talk emboldens us to finish out the week. That evening, I make my daily progress report to Paul.

"It was amazing!" I gush with what little energy I have left. "Ian started to pee and turned around and headed right toward the potty!"

Paul is unimpressed, even with my embellishment. Moments later, Ian indifferently poops in his pants. "Big poo-poo!" Toby screams.

Day 5

8:40 a.m.: Ian pees.

8:45: Toby pees.

9:27: Ian pees.

10:05: Toby pees.

11:00: Ian pees.

11:05: Toby pees.

11:25: Ian poops.

11:34: Toby pees.

11:36: Ian pees.

11:45: Toby pees.

12:15 p.m.: Ian pees.

12:27: Toby pees.

And not once on the potty. By noon, we've run out of clean shorts. Amanda and I agree: This can't continue.

Day 8

At 9 a.m. on Monday, I greet Amanda with the news: I've kept the project afloat over the weekend.

"Stacy keeps telling me it takes three weeks to 'click,'?" I tell Amanda. "I'm too invested to quit."

Amanda makes her own confession: "I'm too invested, too." She forges on solo as I abandon her to catch up on a week's worth of work.

Day 10

My friend Brenda stops by with her son, Heath, whom she adopted as a toddler from a Siberian orphanage. Heath was potty trained at 18 months. "I never had to change a single diaper," Brenda says, trying not to gloat.

Later, I Google "Siberia" and "potty training." All I find are tips on how to potty train Siberian huskies.

Day 11

I'm carrying laundry upstairs when I hear a cry from the dining room. "Pee-pee!" I drop my basket and sprint down to find Toby, smiling, sitting on a leather chair in a puddle. As I'm soaking up the mess, I hear another cry, this time from upstairs. "Pee-pee!" I dash up to find Ian sitting contentedly on a drenched couch cushion.

"You're looking at this all wrong," Stacy tells me after I've phoned her, near tears. "Two weeks ago, the boys wouldn't even have noticed, let alone announced, that they'd peed."

She's right. How could I have missed the progress?

Day 12

According to one manual I read, it's useless to say "Aw, it's okay, you'll make it next time" or "Tell Mommy when you have to go." Only five words matter: "Pee-pee goes in the potty."

I say this between practically every breath. Toby chants a condensed version: "Pee-pee potty, pee-pee potty."

We start to brave the outside world. Safeway, Costco, the park. Oddly, the boys are more eager, and less accident-prone, away from home.

Toby also seems to be suffering from poop delusions. A small pinecone by the river, a dropped falafel ball on the kitchen floor, corn dogs in the deli case at the supermarket—"Big poo-poo!" Toby exclaims. "Big poo-poo!"

Maybe we're getting somewhere?

Day 14

I'm crashed on the couch after another day of chasing the boys around with carpet cleaner. Paul is bathing them upstairs when I hear, "Holy moly!"

I fly up to the bathroom. Paul is talking a mile a minute. "Ian was in the bath, and then he said 'Poo-poo!' so I put him on the potty, and he pooped! Just like that! Ian!"

I can't decide whether I'm more thrilled or outraged. How did Paul end up with all the glory?

Day 17

Toby's first accident-free day. Ian has two accidents but tells me both times. Could this be working?

Day 20

I'm enjoying my breakfast when it dawns on me: I am enjoying my breakfast. The first week of boot camp, I ate so little that I lost two pounds. Now? I'm savoring my oatmeal, fairly confident the boys won't have an accident.

Ian interrupts my reverie by presenting me with his potty-chair insert. "Pee-pee!" he says proudly.

Later, Toby sits on the potty without prompting, then announces, "Big poo-poo!" He stands up, and I peer into the bowl. That is no hallucination.

I'm declaring boot camp over. My two guys have earned their stripes.

Epilogue

It's been six months since boot camp. The boys still have occasional accidents—and we had a very messy week when we ditched the naptime nappies a few months ago—but to me, that's a small price to pay for the joy of bypassing the diaper aisle at Costco. I've all but forgotten the awfulness of those early weeks. We're not home free yet, though. Every morning at 5:30 a.m., I am awakened by Toby screaming, "All done!" There's one part of this potty process that 2 1/2-year-olds apparently can't master: bottom wiping. Nobody warned me about that.

Basic Training

My early and all-at-once approach isn't favored by many potty-training experts, who prefer to wait for cues from your child that he wants to begin and then to take it slow. Training gradually is less exhausting, says Karen Deerwester, author of The Potty Training Answer Book. "It protects parents and children from the frustration that can undermine success." She believes it's easier to train children when they are between 2 1/2 and 3 because they have better language and cognitive skills. But other potty-training experts believe that most children, if introduced to the potty on a regular schedule at an early age, can stay reliably accident-free between 18 and 24 months. In fact, before the 1960s, when disposable diapers came on the market, most kids were out of diapers by 2. "Parents have been convinced that there is something inherently dangerous about training their child before he is 'ready,' and there is simply no evidence to support that," says pediatrician Jill Lekovic, M.D., author of Diaper Free Before 3.

Some might call what I did with my 2-year-old twins nuts, but it worked for us. Here's the action plan I devised, along with my thumbs-up or thumbsdown assessment, in hindsight, of each step along the way.

  • Ditch the diapers—and that includes training pants. Except for during naps and at night, it was underwear or bust.
  • Get them naked and outside on the grass. The idea was to minimize cleanup and the need to pull their pants down after whisking them to the potty. But since they felt no discomfort, they didn't realize they were peeing.
  • Scatter potties around the house. We bought four potty chairs so the boys would never be more than 15 feet from one.
  • Assign one adult to each child for five full days. In addition to getting help from our nanny, I scheduled friends to come for two-hour time slots so that we could use the toilet or eat without missing any opportunities for a "hit."
  • Don't leave the premises for three days. Worrying about accidents is too stressful on the adult and puts a kink in the potty schedule.
  • Pump them with water. We bought the boys fun new water bottles and encouraged them to guzzle, on the theory that repetition is everything. The incessant peeing was exhausting for us but, I think, helped get the point across.
  • Set a timer. We put the boys on the potty every ten minutes for the first two days, then gradually increased the time between bathroom visits to an hour. Having a schedule was very helpful, but every ten minutes was far too often.
  • Reward them. We gave stickers each time they peed on the potty, but the stickers quickly lost power.
  • Be matter-of-fact about accidents. We didn't condemn or coddle; we simply repeated "Pee-pee goes in the potty" and cleaned up the mess. The mantra works.

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