Current Issue

Strolling through my grocery store recently, I came upon the “baby products” aisle, where I spied packages of toilet-training pants featuring pictures of happy children who looked to be at least three, some as old as five. Immediately the question came to my mind, Why would a five-year-old who’s continuing to eliminate on himself be happy? Perhaps a spokesperson for the unnamed manufacturer of said apparel will answer that question for me.

In the mid 1950s, a study by researchers from Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Princeton determined that close to 90 percent of 24-month-old American children were accident-free and had been for at least one month. This determination means that nine out of ten children were completely toilet trained by no later than 23 months. And then, in the 1960s, along came the Mr. Rogers of pediatrics, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, who claimed, without a shred of scientifically obtained evidence, that the attempt to toilet train a child under age 24 months requires “force,” and it’s therefore psychologically damaging.

In addition, Brazelton fabricated a wholly fictitious set of 10 or so behavioral “readiness signs” that he insisted must be present before toilet training can begin. Mind you, the only readiness sign to which mothers paid attention in the era before parenting based on psychology became popular (pre-1960s) was their readiness to stop changing and washing diapers.

Almost instantly, Brazelton’s “child-centered” approach to toilet training became the gold standard in the pediatric community. As pediatricians began advising mothers to hold off training until 30 to 36 months lest they wreak psychological havoc on their kids—a process that had taken three days to a week, on average—began taking months, even years. Likewise, mothers went from being fairly nonchalant about the entire affair to being toilet-training basket cases.

The problem expanded to the point that some psychologists began specializing in toilet training. Books on toilet training proliferated. I even wrote one in which I simply described how it was done before Brazelton threw his monkey wrench into the matter.

Do parents need specialized professional training to properly teach children to feed themselves? No, they don’t. Thankfully, no one with capital letters after his or her name has ever claimed that improper spoon training will begin a child’s descent into psychological pandemonium, even criminality. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time. There must be a market there, somewhere.

After all, there are several similarities between spoon training and toilet training. First, they both involve the digestive system. Second, they both involve messes. Third, said messes must be taken care of by parents. Surely someone smarter than myself can make a case for waiting to teach children to feed themselves until they are at least five, lest an emotional apocalypse ensue. Said someone— a PhD psychologist, of course—could come up with spoon-training readiness signs, as in, “Child shows no significant anxiety at being handed a small spoon covered in soft rubber.”

Then the recommendation that the “child be allowed to handle and chew on a rubber-coated spoon for at least a week before training in self-feeding begins.” Within five years, we will have therapy and medication for SFAD (self-feeding anxiety disorder).

I’m being a tad—but only a tad—facetious. Nonetheless, history strongly suggests that if a child-rearing problem doesn’t yet exist, the professional community can be counted upon to remedy the situation.

Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at or (817) 295-1751.

Living With Children: Toilet Training

by John Rosemond
From the November 2018 Signs