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Whackjobs Are Made, Not Born

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Family Issues, Women's Issues

Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. This is especially true for child-rearing strategies. Each new generation of parents is bound to reject the old-fashioned techniques of their parents, thought to cause obsessive-compulsive and social anxiety and other disorders dramatized on the Family Channel, in favor of more enlightened practices that promise sparkling, minty-fresh, disorder-free children.

And inevitably, the new new thing is actually something the great-grandparents did to the grandparents, who rebelled against it.

Breast or bottle, solid food introduced early or late, the psychological impact of pacifiers–out of such things are many generational arguments born. But the Mother of All Controversies is–toilet training. Early or late?

Every twenty years or so, some genius promotes the idea that babies should be toilet trained at six months. Just imagine–no more diapers! Never mind that the critters can’t walk to the toilet at six months, or that a baby’s tiny bladder requires frequent emptying, and that babies can’t “hold it” even for the amount of time it takes you to grab them and run for the bathroom. Some pediatricians say that babies aren’t aware of their own urination until they are past the age of two.

So, exactly how does one “train” them?

The answer is, one can’t. It’s the parent–more specifically, the mother–who gets “trained” to anticipate when Little Petunia will need to be potted.

When I was enjoying the postpartum years, conventional wisdom said that early toilet training resulted in neurotic adults. This, and the fact that Procter & Gamble finally got the hang of making disposable diapers that didn’t leak, inspired us moms of the 1980s to keep the kids diapered until they were well into toddlerhood. (This in spite of the consternation of our mothers, who’d given birth to us during a McCarthy-era early-potty-training phase.)

But now those toddlers, grown up, are being sold on the glories of fast-track potty training. Last week Tina Kelley wrote in the New York Times (October 9),

… a growing number of parents are experimenting with infant potty training, seeing it as more sanitary, ecologically correct and likely to strengthen bonds between parent and child.

Translation: Mommy Madness writ large. Somebody (guess who) has to watch junior’s every hiccup for signals that he’s about to go, then grab him and dash for the pot. If, after a few weeks, one’s home smells like some of the gamier sections of the Times Square subway station, that’s just one more thing for Mom to feel guilty about. She may have a closer emotional bond with her baby, but whether that emotion is a positive one is another question.

I don’t have any proof, but I can’t help but suspect the same evil forces behind the “good mothers home school their children” movement are responsible for this “diaper free baby” nonsense. It’s a plot against women, I tell you. If they can’t keep us barefoot and pregnant, they’ll find some other way to keep us docile. Or, at least, preoccupied.

About 2,000 people across the country have joined Internet groups and e-mail lists to learn more about the techniques of encouraging a baby – a child too young to walk or talk – to go in a toilet, a sink or a pot. Through a nonprofit group, Diaper Free Baby (www.diaperfreebaby.org), 77 local groups have formed in 35 states to encourage the practice. One author’s how-to books on the subject have sold about 50,000 copies.

A sink? The kids piddle in the sink? That’s more sanitary?

Look, diapers aren’t so bad. In fact, the diaper thing was the one part of my parenting act I believe I got right. My kids never had diaper rash, because I changed and washed them frequently and treated every spot with copious amount of Desitin ointment, which my mother swore by. And for what it’s worth I didn’t use any kind of powder on them. My kids’ doctors often commented that my babies had the clearest butts they’d ever seen. Whatever else I did or didn’t do right–well, we all survived. But parenting is a hard enough job without making it more complicated.

And, please note that disposable diapers amount to less than one percent by weight or 1.5 percent by volume of the waste in landfills.

Tina Kelley continues,

Ingrid Bauer, author of “Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene” (Natural Wisdom Press, 2001), believes it is easiest to begin toilet training in the first six months. To start, parents are taught to hold the baby by the thighs in a seated position against their stomachs and to make an encouraging hiss or grunt. With practice, parents learn their child’s rhythms; some parents sleep next to their children and keep a potty at arm’s reach, or diaper their babies overnight.

One early-training advocate wrote to the New York Times that toilet training for both her daughter and granddaughter began at six months: “Voilà! Both were toilet-trained in a few short weeks.”

A few short weeks? Compare and contrast with the maha method–when my daughter was two and a half, I explained the potty thing to her. She said OK. By the next day she was good to go without diapers, at least during the daytime.

(I’d like to say the same method worked as well with my son. However, he’s a boy, and boys don’t take to civilization quite as easily as girls. He understood perfectly well what was expected; he just didn’t see the point to it. I don’t remember exactly when he finally conceded, but it was in time for Kindergarten.)

Kelley quotes a fast-potty-track mother:

“It’s just so simple,” said Lamelle Ryman, who recently attended a support meeting at an apartment on the Upper West Side. Ms. Ryman, the mother of 7-month-old Neshama, added, “I feel like it’s been such a gift in our relationship.”

Yeah, right. Ms. Ryman may eventually need another maha parenting technique, which I call “locking-the-critters-in-a-room-with-a-case-of-Twinkies- while-Mom-bounces-off-the-wall-for-an-hour-or-two.” It’s cheaper than a therapist.

Speaking of which–when today’s babies grow up, will Freud’s theories on the connection between toilet training and the anal-retentive personality come back into vogue? Stay tuned …

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