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Why Punishment Derails Potty Training

Last month, a dad was charged with murder after he took potty training too far with his three-year-old son. The boy was not progressing as quickly as his father wanted, so he resorted to punishment. He hit the child twice, and it resulted in brain swelling, fractures and ultimately, death. Obviously this guy took the concept of negative reinforcement way, way too far, but can small doses of punishment help more than they hurt?

Potty training is an exciting but often frustrating rite of passage for both parents and their kids. Every mom seems to have her own method, and every kid reacts a little differently to the process. Many parents rely on rewards and punishment to help their kids adapt to toilet use and swear it works. And yeah, it "works" in the sense that eventually these kids learn to eliminate in the toilet… but maybe there's more at stake here.

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Author and parenting expert Dr. Laura Markham notes that adults often forget how difficult it is for children to make such a big adjustment. "For a toddler who has spent their entire life in diapers thus far, noticing their urge to eliminate takes great attention and hard work. Consistently controlling that urge until they get to the potty is a major achievement. Some children are motivated to master this because they don't like the feeling of being wet or messy. Others are motivated by their urge for mastery or their desire to be like older children. The rest are motivated by their desire to emulate their parents, who they love and whose lead they want to follow."

I don't know a single adult who never learned to use the toilet because their parents waited too long, were too "nice" about it, or didn't push hard enough.

We're all interested in finding the most direct route to diaper freedom when the time comes, so we pull out the big guns. For my part, I would basically shovel chocolate cake into my son's mouth as long as he would keep sitting on the potty chair. We happened to have some leftover birthday cake sitting around, and I hate chocolate cake, so it was a win-win. No more cake, no more diapers. Maybe it wasn't my finest parenting moment, but punishing him for accidents just never felt right. Dr. Markham backs me up on this one:

"Punishing kids about toileting ALWAYS seems to result in more accidents. Most likely this is because the child stops seeing toileting as an opportunity for mastery—which all kids want—and starts seeing it as a source of stress. We know that stress causes children to regress, and punishment is a huge stressor. "

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Even worse, Markham notes that punishment erodes the bond between me and my child, and therefore kills my child's desire to emulate my behavior.

I don't know a single adult who never learned to use the toilet because their parents waited too long, were too "nice" about it, or didn't push hard enough. I even know one mom whose boys just climbed up to the toilet and started using it one day. No drama, no rewards, no punishment or schemes or "training." Now let's be real, if that's an option, why even consider bribes and punishment?

Image via Getty Images

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