Will these potty training updates never end? It's been 9 months now, and sometimes it feels like we've made no progress at all.
After our nightmarish trip to Florida in March, I buckled down on the problem, which means that I stopped giving Samantha reminders, hints, or any negative attention related to the potty. I just left her alone. She started using the potty again some of the time, and she did fine at school after a few days of readjustment. But she was still having an "accident" or two every day. She just holds it until a bit comes out and we have to clean it up, but then a half hour later, a little more comes out, etc. I started to worry about her physically damaging herself by holding back.
Then a friend suggested that we try a different reward system. It might not sound very different from the stars on the whiteboard system I tried before, but we gave Sam a ball to put in a clear jar each time she used the potty, and when she got 5 balls in (when the jar was full), she could choose a reward of a piece of candy, ice cream, or going out to dinner. The real difference was in the concrete nature of the ball and jar system. I let her use markers to color the Styrofoam balls and we kept the jar on a counter where it was always visible to her.
We had a lot of success with this system for a couple of weeks. Then Sam learned that she could dribble a bit of pee in the toilet and get a ball, then go back and pee some more and get another ball, etc., until she had 5 balls anytime she wanted them. (Damn that intelligent mind of hers!)
That's been my experience with all reward systems. They are totally useless for the long-term. If all you need is a jump-start or a way to get back on track, rewards can be useful (and this kind of more concrete, visible progress is helpful), but they don't really teach the child anything. Sam needs to choose to use the potty for her own, real, selfish reasons. The problem is that I have been completely unable to come up with any reason for her to use the potty. From her perspective, there is just no reason at all to do it. Well, I did know of one reason, but it was not something I was willing to do, as I'll explain.
After she figured out how to game the system with the jar and balls, I told her that we'd go back to giving her a reward if she could go a whole day without having an accident. As soon as I told her this, she went back to not using the potty at all.
So I put her back in diapers! I swore I would never do it because I thought it would be like going back to smoking after the hell of quitting - it just could not be worth it. But it was so worth it. She was fine at school, but at home, I just put a diaper on her and told her that if she was going to keep going in her underwear, then she would not be allowed to wear them. I told her that if she wanted to use the potty, she could wear underwear again. I didn't make a big deal of it, but just told her that I was not going to clean up after her anymore. She was perfectly content with the diapers, and so was I.
Just a few days later, we had our end-of-year meeting with Sammy's teacher (which I'll write about in a separate post). Her teacher brought up the potty training issue because she knows we're struggling with it, and because there are occasional accidents at school. She suggested that we make Sam clean herself up. I was completely baffled by this suggestion. I think others have suggested it to me before, but I've ignored it because I simply could not process the idea. Really, I simply could not conceive of what that even meant. I mean, SHE MIGHT GET POOP ON HER HANDS AND THEN THE WORLD WOULD END. Right? Isn't everyone with me here?
So, the teacher suggested this and I really argued with her about it because I thought she must be insane or something. She made the argument that this is the logical consequence for having accidents and I agreed with that completely, but my mind would just go blank when considering what to actually do. All I could think of was poop all over the house. But later, I started thinking about it and I realized something. I already know that Sam fights me on the things that I am emotional about. She had the hitting problem when I had the idea in my head that hitting was heinous behavior that needed to be stopped, now. As soon as I let go of that attitude, she stopped (except for true loss of control, which is different). And I already suspect that I have some kind of weird attitude towards poop. Adam says I do, and I noticed that other people don't worry about it if they get poop on their hands when changing a diaper. They just wash their hands. I am mortified if that happens. Also, I have recurring nightmares about dirty public restrooms.
So I started thinking that even though I've tried to make no big deal about poop to Sam, that she still KNOWS. In fact, I realized that she might know me better than I know myself. So I decided to try this letting her clean up thing. And the first time I did it, I was really, really scared. I got a glimpse of what it must be like to have a phobia - a completely irrational fear. (I guess I actually do have a minor phobia.) I had to force myself not to think about what might happen if I didn't clean her up. I took it one moment at a time. I just told her that she had to do it and she could not come out of the bathroom until she did, and then I held my breath. (I had talked to her about it ahead of time, too, of course.)
To my complete astonishment, that is all I had to do. Sam is able to almost completely clean herself up, even after an "accident" that gets poop all the way down to her knees. She fought doing it, but tears and screaming don't scare me. In a few minutes she got started, asked me to leave the room, spent about 5 minutes and half a roll of toilet paper, and was proud of her accomplishment. She's fought me less each time. With really messy ones, I might give her a wipe or two when she is done, but only to keep the house clean. I suppose we'll actually have to enforce the "wash your hands" thing now, which we've never made a big deal of before. And I try not to think about what's going on in that underwear.
She had no accidents today. Hurray for logical consequences! Let's hope I've finally solved this problem.