Using Potty Training Rewards to Motivate Toddlers

Offering rewards to children during potty training has benefits

potty training
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Should parents use potty training rewards to motivate children? Parents interested in this technique should consider both its pros and cons and then decide whether or not rewards-based potty training suits their child and their family.

One reader wrote in to describe the effect of using the approach. The parent said:

"We're getting started potty training with my 2-year-old daughter. I've been giving her an M&M to sit on the potty.

She hasn't actually peed or pooped in it yet, but I told her that when she does, I'll give her five M&Ms. That was all fine for about a week, but now I have two problems. First, her daycare provider won't go along with giving her the M&M... and never sits her on the potty to begin with. Second, now [my daughter] seems angry when I ask her to go to the potty and says she doesn't want the M&Ms. What can I do to motivate her to go potty?"

Answer: Using rewards for potty training can be somewhat effective depending on several factors, including the way you implement the system and your child's readiness and willingness to be potty trained. As you've learned, however, rewards can backfire, too.

Is Your Child Really Ready?

First, consider if your child is really ready to begin potty training. Sometimes you may want desperately for your child to get out of those diapers, but it's just not the right time.

Sometimes she's sort of ready to use the toilet, so you may then be tempted to offer a reward to get her to do what you want her to do. In this case, you offered her a reward for just sitting on the potty. And getting her to sit on the potty is a great idea and first step in getting started with potty training.

If it's all starting to come together for her, she might end up going pee or poo while she's doing all that sitting and so the cycle of going potty begins. That first pee can be the hardest one.

What actually complicates this entire approach, however, is the reward. It's likely that she doesn't know what to do on the potty at all just yet. But what she knows now is that she gets a piece of candy every time she sits on that potty. She's got an association made with the potty now that has nothing to do with learning how to use it. It's just a strip-down, sit-down, get-candy station to her.

In your case, she's already tired of the scenario and is refusing to sit on the potty. She's declaring that she doesn't even want the candy now. Now the ball is in your court. Some parents might be tempted to escalate the situation by offering even more candy or switching it up with a different type of reward like a toy. Other parents may head to the opposite end of the spectrum and enforce punishment instead.

These approaches rarely lead to successful potty training.

Making the Potty Enjoyable

One of the best ways to motivate your child to sit on the potty and get interested in using it is just by making the potty agreeable. Choose a comfortable potty chair. Make sure she's got a step stool so her legs don't dangle if you're using the toilet. Make sure it's not too cold in the bathroom. Let her read books (preferably potty training books). Give her privacy if she wants it or sit with her if she wants that. Let her put her dolls on the potty so she can see if they make it through the experience before she gives it a try. Maintain a calm, easygoing attitude and don't create negative associations for her by yelling or showing your frustration when things don't go as you'd like.

Your Child Care Provider's Choice

If your child care provider doesn't want to offer rewards or have your child spend lots of time sitting on the potty, you should respect her choice. She should also respect yours, though, so you probably need to sit down and discuss how you'd like potty training to proceed. Ask her what her reasons are for not wanting to go along with your plan and be prepared to explain your position as well. Hopefully you'll find some middle ground and I bet you'll learn from her past experiences potty training other children. Either way, it's a good idea if you're both on the same page so that your child has consistency during the toilet learning process.

The Cons of Edible Potty Training Rewards

If you're going to use any kind of reward, candy and food are not optimum choices. Toddlers can be notoriously picky eaters so why replace a nutritionally dense calorie with an empty one? If you frequently offer sweet or fatty food as rewards throughout your child's life, then it's likely to model an unhealthy relationship between food and emotions. Your child might be tempted later in life to reward herself with ice cream when feeling sad or when accomplishing some small task, for example.

Rewarding for Skills

I also don't recommend ever rewarding children for what are essentially the skills necessary for life. Walking. Talking. Climbing stairs. Using a spoon. Picking up her room. Helping with chores. Going potty. These are all things that she must learn to do with or without rewards. I think it helps your child learn to appreciate accomplishments for exactly what they are instead of hoping that there is a carrot dangling on the other side of everything you'd like her to do. Remember that praise can be an effective tool, but excessive praise isn't very different from offering rewards or bribing.

Using a Potty Chart

I like the use of potty charts quite a bit more than other types of rewards. Not in the way you might think, though. I don't think it's effective when you offer the sticker or stamp as a bribe. "You do this thing and I'll give you this thing in return." In that way, you're sort of saying, "If you do this thing for me..." That doesn't reinforce that potty training is really for her. Try not even mentioning the sticker or stamp until after your child uses the potty. Then use it as a way to mark the event that just happened. This allows your child to see the accumulation of her success over time. Count them for her and give her a factual report. "You've gone potty three times today. Looks like you are getting the hang of it." Just let it be a visual reminder.

Potty Charts Can Also Magnify Failures

But be careful. Again, if you've started trying to potty train before your child is ready and your toddler has yet to deposit a single droplet of urine into the bowl, don't break out the potty chart just now. Wait until she's got a few practice shots under her belt. Just as a full potty chart can be a visual reminder of what she can do, an empty one can be a visual reminder of what she can't. You might unintentionally do harm and reinforce her lack of ability by pointing out that it's almost the end of the day and she doesn't have a single sticker.

Rewards can certainly have a place when they aren't overdone. Celebrating a job well done loses its potency pretty quickly when it's done 10 times a day, though. If you've given rewards to a mostly compliant child and it worked in the past, don't be lulled into repeating that process too often. Keep the rewards to a minimum, offer praise that isn't overly demonstrative and let the independence of using the potty be its own reward for your toddler.

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