Motivation and Potty Training

There will be many times in your child’s life where you want them to do something they don’t want to do, or you want them to work hard at something to learn a skill that you think will be valuable to them in the long run, but they aren’t particularly interested in learning at this time. How do we help them find their own internal motivation?

Potty training is one of our first chances to explore this challenge.

Parental Motivations

First, consider your motivations. Why do you want your child to use the potty? Is it pressure from a pre-school or daycare that requires it by a certain age? Or is it that you’re tired of changing diapers? Or stressed by paying for diapers? Or because other families are doing it, and you’re feeling peer pressure to keep up? Or because you like to encourage your child toward independence in all areas? The clearer your motivation, and the stronger your motivation, the more time and energy you’re likely to be willing to commit to the process.

Some parents actually find that they’re not motivated to potty train. The diaper routine is working for their family’s schedule and commitments. This is fine for a while, but at some point (certainly by four years old) it’s time to help your child move forward.

Child’s Motivation?

Then ask yourself: What are your child’s motivations? Or maybe they are not motivated to potty train!

Why might a child prefer to continue to use diapers rather than using the potty? Some ideas: they’re used to eliminating in their diaper – it’s comfortable and familiar. They may be in a state of regressing a bit, and not feeling bold enough to be ‘a big kid’. They may not like interrupting valuable play time with trips to the potty. They might be frightened of the potty. They might be rebellious toddlers, defying their parents’ wishes ‘just because.’ They might have a desire to be completely in control of when and where they move their bowels. They might also have been constipated at one point, and found that it hurt to have a bowel movement, and not be afraid of repeating that.

Then ask: What things might motivate your child to use the potty? Some possible options are punishment or rewards…


It’s best not to use punishment. It can work, in that a child who is punished for eliminating in a diaper may well use a potty to avoid that punishment. But it could also shame them and damage their self-esteem. And it also means that they’re only using the toilet to avoid punishment – not for any positive reason.

On the other hand, logical consequences are appropriate, as long as they are done without shaming. For example, having them help with clean-up after an accident allows them to see the consequences. Or taking back the big kid underwear, saying ‘it looks like you’re not ready for this yet… let’s just go back to diapers for a while’, helps them to see what the goal is and what the reward is of accomplishing it.

Rewards & Praise?

Many people use a sticker chart, or some other reward system for potty training, and for other times where they want to shape their child’s behavior. The general idea is: talk with your child about what you want them to do, tell them that when they do it they will get a reward (like a sticker – choose something cheap and easy to obtain! Don’t use candy…) The rewards need to be immediate for your child to understand them – as soon as they do the action, they get the reward. (Toddlers can’t remember things for very long, so waiting a long time for the reinforcement means they no longer remember what it’s for!). Then have them be involved in setting up the system: pick out the reward, or make the chart, or whatever.

Make sure they are clear about what the behavior is you are working on, and be consistent about the response. For example: “if you sit on the potty, you get a sticker whether or not you pee there” may be a good first level. Later on, when they’ve mastered that step, you ask more of them: they need to pee or poop to get the sticker. You may choose to also have a cumulative goal to work toward, like “once you have filled the chart, then you get a new toy (or big kid underwear!).”

It’s important to think of these rewards as short-term reinforcement, not an on-going system! Over time you will phase out the stickers completely. Rewards can be a very effective tool for toddlers. However, you don’t want to over-use rewards! And you want to make sure the focus is on accomplishing the goal for its own sake, not on just doing something so they get a reward.

Downsides to Rewards & Praise

Critics of rewards say they are a short-term solution to gain compliance with parental requests, not a long-term path to instilling the behaviors, qualities, and values you want your child to attain. They say that kids who are raised on a series of rewards can become more self-centered, materialistic, reward junkies looking for their next fix from parents who can become exhausted by coming up with new rewards.

Rewards can also create a lot of stress – the child feels pressured to achieve and may be very distressed when they can’t accomplish the task and can’t receive the reward.

Research has also shown praise can backfire. If we continually praise our child for being “smart”, “beautiful” or “strong”, then they may be afraid to take risks – not wanting to do anything that they might not succeed at… fearing that then we will realize they’re not so smart or strong or beautiful after all – and thus not lovable. Also, when a child is vigorously praised for every little thing she does, she may not know whether praise is genuine.

Experts recommend that when you want your child to learn a new skill, think about what it is you are really trying to teach and stay focused on that. Work with your child to find their motivation for learning this new skill. As they make attempts along the way, give specific praise for their efforts and their commitment, and specific recommendations for how they might improve. The emphasis is more on the process than the product, more on the work they do than on the “talent” they have. When they accomplish a goal that they set, then it is totally appropriate to celebrate that with something (Stickers? M&M’s? Big kid underwear? A special toy?) as long as the emphasis is on the value of the accomplishment itself, not on having done whatever they needed to do just to earn the reward.

Learning More

1 thought on “Motivation and Potty Training

  1. Pingback: Potty Training | More Good Days – Parenting Blog

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