Will our 3-year-old ever use the potty?
Q: We have a 3-year-old who is not yet toilet trained. We took the laid-back approach, but enough is enough. We are really tired of diapers and we also have a new baby coming in a few weeks and the thought of two children in diapers is discouraging. But nothing seems to be working. We have tried reading him books about children using the potty, offering treats as rewards and taking our son to the house of other little boys who are trained. He couldn’t be less interested. Our pediatrician says there is nothing wrong with him. I have noticed, though, that he seems to be having fewer bowel movements, so I have been giving him a children’s laxative. Help please. R. T., Aurora
A: The problem is that children cannot be cajoled or pressured into using the potty—it is a purely voluntary action. Without meaning to, you have gotten into a power struggle you can’t win, your son is reacting by rejecting the potty and now by holding his bowel movements. Your son is going to have to want to use the potty, which is why we like to use the term “toilet choosing” rather than “toilet training.” The sooner you take all the pressure off and let him feel it is truly his choice, the sooner he is likely to want to be like his friends and leave diapers behind. Also, when children who are physically normal hold their bowel movements, it often means that they are reacting to pressure to use the potty by concluding that the problem could be avoided altogether if only they could keep from having bowel movements at all. This “solution” can become chronic and lead to further emotional and physical problems. The answer is not to force bowel movements through laxatives, but to remove the reason for the bowel-retention by letting your son know that you are content to let him choose to use the potty on his timetable rather than yours. While we can understand your frustration at the thought of having two children in diapers, it is also true that children about to have siblings cling to babyish ways—so your son is unlikely to graduate to the potty until after the baby is born.
My daughter hates school and she’s only in first grade
Q: My 6-year-old daughter started first grade this fall and she has been coming home saying she hates school. At first she refused to talk about it, but I gently persisted and she finally said that she is the “worst” at math, that all the other kids know their addition and subtraction and she doesn’t. They have something called a “math minute” in which they have a minute to see how many addition and subtraction problems they can do. She says other kids get scores of more than 20 out of 25, but she almost never gets more than six or seven. I have tried to reassure her by telling her that first grade is the place to learn math, but she says everyone else already knows it. I feel really badly for her, but I don’t know what to do to help. I never knew that children had to know math by first grade. What do you suggest? L. G., Barrington
A: We have heard this kind of understandable frustration from many parents, who discover too late that there are schools that expect children to enter first grade with both reading and math skills. Many kindergartens do not believe in teaching math and reading to 5-year-olds, which is fine. Rather than realizing that with instruction they can catch up, many children measure themselves against their peers and conclude that the problem is that they are not smart enough. These children often respond by disliking reading, math and school. In this way, children like your daughter are needlessly being discouraged and made to feel inadequate.
Talk to your daughter’s school and see if they offer after-school help or other enrichment programs to enable your daughter to catch up in math. At home, you can think of fun ways to practice addition and subtraction. If you have a computer, there are many math programs for first graders that children find enjoyable. Most important is to continue to tell your daughter that the problem is that she wasn’t taught math in kindergarten, not that she can’t learn it, and that you are totally confident that she has the talent to become an excellent math student.
My 18-month-old’s bite is worse than my bark
Q: My 18-month-old son has been biting other children and me. I have explained over and over that biting is not acceptable and that it hurts and upsets people, but it doesn’t seem to help. He does it mainly when he feels frustrated, upset or tired but I keep telling him there are better ways to handle his feelings. One of my friends suggested biting him back, but that seems to me to be stooping to his level. Suggestions? K.Y., Oak Park
A: You are right to feel that it is not a good remedy to bite your 18-month-old. In fact, he would be likely to copy your example and bite more frequently. Similarly, explaining he is hurting others’ feelings is unlikely to be effective, because at his age children’s thinking is not sophisticated enough to allow them to understand how they affect the feelings of others. Best is to manage the behavior. If he is in a situation with other children, remain by his side and scoop him up if he starts to bite. Tell him in a kind but firm voice that biting is not OK and that you and he will do something else until he is ready to play without biting. The goal is not to punish him, but simply to prevent him from biting. Similarly, if you can see he is getting ready to bite you, pick him up, turn him around and hold him so he can’t reach you. Tell him that you can’t let him bite you, but you will be happy to play with him when he is ready. Also, consider whether your son is under undue stress in his daily life. Does he have older siblings who are pushing him around, is he spending too much time with other children? Perhaps without realizing it, you are expecting him to behave more maturely than is age appropriate. If you can remove some of the stress, you may find the biting will disappear.
Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D. are the authors most recently of Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill), which helps parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline that Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (Harvard Common Press). The Piepers have been practicing psychotherapy for more than three decades working with infants, children, adolescents and adults. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.